Food Assistance in COVID Relief Bill Would Reduce Hardship, Provide Economic Stimulus

The changes to food assistance programs included in the major economic relief package the House is considering this week include $12 billion in key investments to mitigate extraordinarily high levels of hunger and hardship.[1] The major food assistance provisions in the relief bill would:

  • Extend through September the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefit increase in December’s COVID relief package, which would help millions of families and children have enough to eat while injecting additional, high “bang-for-the-buck” stimulus into the economy;
  • Help guard against food hardship among children this summer by allowing states to continue the Pandemic-EBT (P-EBT) program, which provides grocery benefits to replace meals that children miss when schools are closed;
  • Invest in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) to modernize the program, support innovative service delivery models, and temporarily raise the amount of fruit and vegetables participants can obtain;
  • Increase federal resources for state administrative costs to help states accommodate the increased demand for SNAP; and
  • Help address elevated food need in Puerto Rico and certain other U.S. territories.

"The bill responds to the alarming growth in food hardship due to the COVID crisis, which has disproportionately affected households with children and communities of color."

The bill responds to the alarming growth in food hardship due to the COVID crisis, which has disproportionately affected households with children and communities of color. The number of households struggling to put enough food on the table spiked in the spring of 2020 as the pandemic’s economic effects took hold. It remained nearly three times pre-pandemic levels over the summer and rose more in the fall, reaching the highest level in comparable Pulse data available back to late August in December 2020. There have been modest improvements in early 2021, but levels of food hardship remain much higher than pre-pandemic levels.

Some 24 million adults (11 percent) said their household didn’t get enough to eat sometimes or often in the last seven days in the Census Bureau’s most recent survey, conducted February 3-15. That’s far above the most comparable pre-pandemic estimate, which showed that 8.5 million adults (3.4 percent) lived in households that didn’t get enough to eat at some point in all of 2019.[2]

Food hardship has been especially prevalent among children. Up to 11 million children live in a household where the children aren’t eating enough because they can’t afford enough food, according to our analysis of the latest available Census data. That’s more than ten times the 1.1 million children in December 2019 living in households where the children didn’t get enough to eat at any point in the last 30 days.[3] This raises serious concerns about the crisis’ long-term consequences for children’s health and development. Studies link food insecurity among children with reduced intake of some key nutrients, health problems such as iron deficiency (which is linked with long-term neurological damage), and behavioral issues and mental health conditions. These problems, in turn, can lower children’s test scores, their likelihood of graduating from high school, and their earnings in adulthood.[4] Even short periods of food insecurity pose long-term risks for children.

Families of color have faced some of the worst hardship, reflecting longstanding inequities — often stemming from structural racism — in education, employment, and other areas that the current crisis is exacerbating. Black and Latino adults were more than twice as likely as white adults to report last month that their household didn’t get enough to eat: 20 percent and 18 percent, respectively, compared to 8 percent of white adults. Similarly, 16 percent of adults who identify as American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, or as multiracial, taken together reported that their household did not get enough to eat.

Racial disparities were even more pronounced for children. Up to 29 percent of children in Black households and up to 31 percent in Latino households (based on the race or ethnicity of the parent) live in households where children didn’t eat enough in the last seven days because the household couldn’t afford it, compared to 9 percent of children in white households. (See Figure 1.)

figure 1

Extending Increase in Maximum SNAP Benefit

The House economic relief bill would extend through September the temporary 15 percent increase in the maximum SNAP maximum benefit established in the December COVID relief legislation.[5] The increase amounts to about $27 more per person per month for all participating households, or just over $100 per month in additional food assistance for a family of four. This relief is now scheduled to end in June, before the economy has likely recovered and while food insecurity will likely still be high; the Agriculture Committee bill would address that potential gap. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that this three-month extension would cost $3.5 billion in 2021.[6] (See Table 1 for state-by-state impacts.)

Increasing SNAP’s maximum benefit by 15 percent supports low-income households as well as the overall economy. SNAP is one of the most effective mechanisms both to reach low-income households with resources to address hardship and to provide counter-cyclical help when the economy is weak. A similar SNAP benefit increase in the 2009 Recovery Act lessened food insecurity among SNAP recipients, according to Department of Agriculture (USDA) researchers.[7] And CBO and Moody’s Analytics rate SNAP expenditures as one of the most effective and efficient supports for the economy during downturns, measured on a “bang-for-the-buck” basis. Every dollar in new SNAP benefits increases gross domestic product by about $1.50 during a weak economy, according to a recent USDA study.[8]

About 40 percent of the added benefits from the 15 percent benefit increase go to households with income below 50 percent of the federal poverty level; nearly two-thirds go to households with children. It is important to note that the scheduled June expiration of the benefit increase coincides with the end of the school year, when P-EBT is also set to expire unless Congress passes this bill, which also includes provisions to extend P-EBT through the summer. (See below.)

In addition to the 15 percent increase (which began in January 2021), many SNAP households are receiving added food assistance under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act’s emergency SNAP allotments. But USDA’s current interpretation of this policy, dating from the Trump Administration, denies those allotments to nearly 40 percent of SNAP households, including many that have the lowest incomes and thus have the most difficulty affording adequate food. At least 12 million of the poorest SNAP participants are missing out, including more than 5 million children (over 40 percent of them under age 6), about 1 million households with elderly members, and 600,000 households with people who have disabilities.[9]

The Biden Administration announced on January 22 that it would seek to improve the emergency SNAP benefits so they reach the lowest-income households, though the timing of any changes and the amount of emergency allotments that households would receive are unclear. [10] Together, reaching the lowest-income households through emergency allotments and extending the 15 percent increase would do more to respond to elevated food insecurity than either change alone.

Later this year (after this relief package is enacted), policymakers may need to extend the SNAP benefit increase beyond the end of September if the economy still is not fully recovered. But the important changes in the House bill would go a long way toward easing hardship and boosting the economy this summer.

Strengthening State SNAP Administration and Food Assistance in Territories

The bill also includes other food assistance proposals to strengthen the nation’s response to COVID.

Added resources for state SNAP administration. The bill would provide $1.135 billion over a three-year period for state administrative costs to help states accommodate the increased demand for SNAP. [11] Though SNAP’s benefits are federally funded, states administer the application and benefit issuance processes, among other activities, and pay 50 percent of administrative costs. Over the past year, states have had to manage increased SNAP caseloads with their systems stretched due to office closures and staff reductions. Many states needed to quickly launch telework capacity and systems modifications to adapt to the need for physical distancing during the pandemic. The additional federal funding would not require a state match, giving states additional resources to navigate these challenges. Table 2 includes state-by-state estimates of each state’s share of the increase in federal administrative funding.

Increased food assistance in Puerto Rico and certain other territories. Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands receive capped block grants for food assistance in lieu of participating in SNAP, which limits their ability to expand due to increased need.[12] The bill would add $1 billion to those block grants, available through September 2027. This funding, along with $614 million enacted in December for these territories, would enable these territories to better meet residents’ food assistance needs both in the short term and in coming years as the territories recover from the economic effects of COVID-19.

The increased assistance would help in Puerto Rico’s efforts to recover from a series of challenges, including more than a decade of economic decline, coupled with hurricanes, earthquakes, and an unprecedented, ongoing bankruptcy process.[13] Puerto Rico residents in many instances have little or no access to key aspects of the nation’s safety net, including SNAP. Despite greater need for help affording groceries, last fall about 1.5 million low-income Puerto Rico residents experienced sharp cuts in food assistance, with average monthly household benefits falling by more than 40 percent (from about $330 to about $190) from summer levels after temporary emergency funding expired.[14]

SNAP online purchasing and other technology improvements. The bill would provide $25 million for USDA to make improvements to online purchasing in SNAP, electronic benefit transfer technology, the use of mobile technologies for SNAP purchases, and technical assistance to retailers on these aspects of SNAP payments. These are important investments that will strengthen and modernize the program.

Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP). The bill would provide $37 million for this program, which provides USDA-purchased food packages to certain low-income elderly individuals and operates in parts of all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and five Indian tribal organizations.

Further Protecting Children From Food Hardship

Responding to staggeringly high food hardship among children and stark racial disparities, the House bill includes several provisions to reduce food hardship among children and young adults.

Extending P-EBT through the summer. The bill invests more than $5 billion to allow this highly successful child nutrition program, which addresses the food needs of low-income children during COVID-related school and child care closures, to provide benefits during the summer and through the remainder of the public health emergency, as long as children are missing out on school meals because of the COVID-19 pandemic.[15] Under P-EBT, families approved for free or reduced-price school meals receive the value of these missed breakfasts and lunches through a state-issued, SNAP-like benefit card.

Since establishing P-EBT in the Families First law, policymakers have made several improvements, including expanding eligibility to include certain children under age 6. The House bill clarifies that this expansion applies to Puerto Rico, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa as well as the states.

P-EBT is currently authorized to continue through September 2021, but because its rules largely align with the school calendar, its benefits will not be available for the summer months, when school is out of session and children’s food hardship typically increases.[16] This potential gap also coincides with the end of the 15 percent increase in SNAP benefits, which will end in June if not extended. A summertime P-EBT benefit would create a bridge for families to the next school year, when students hopefully will return to their classrooms. This approach would be consistent with the Summer EBT demonstration program, a SNAP supplement that has been shown to reduce food insecurity and prompt healthier eating when schools are out for the summer.[17]

Funding to strengthen and modernize WIC. The bill includes up to $880 million to help more eligible families access WIC’s proven health and developmental benefits and temporarily increase food benefits.

Participating in WIC is associated with a range of positive outcomes, including healthier births, reduced infant mortality, and improved cognitive development[18] — areas with stark racial disparities.[19] Thus, connecting more eligible women and young children to WIC could help address racial disparities in early childhood outcomes.[20] Yet prior to the pandemic, WIC reached only about half of the low-income women and young children who qualify. With participation lower in fiscal year 2020 than in recent years even as food hardship for families with children soared, WIC is likely reaching an even smaller share of the eligible families now. The additional funding would help enroll more eligible families by investing in three key areas:

  • Modernization. WIC has not adopted modernizations that are routine in other programs, like online applications or video appointments. To provide services during the pandemic, states accelerated modernization efforts such as accepting electronic documents and offering telephone appointments, but they’ll need continued support to integrate these steps into ongoing operations and develop technology solutions that are more comprehensive, secure, and widely usable than those that they developed hastily last spring. The bill’s additional funds could support joint efforts by USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to build technologies to modernize WIC’s enrollment and recertification processes, such as building a single online entry point where a family in any state could start a WIC application that would be routed to their local clinic to see if they are eligible.
  • Innovation. WIC’s service delivery model has been proven effective, but it’s important to explore alternative approaches that would make it easier for eligible families to enroll and continue participating over time. The bill’s additional funds could support, for example, efforts by USDA, HHS, and community-based providers to better integrate WIC into health care settings, such as by embedding WIC appointments into routine prenatal or pediatric appointments.
  • Increased fruit and vegetable benefits. WIC currently provides $9 monthly for children and $11 monthly for women for fruits and vegetables of their choosing. The National Academies of Sciences has recommended substantially increasing the fruit and vegetable benefit so participants could come closer to eating recommended amounts. The bill makes funding available, at state option, for a four-month increase in the benefit of up to $35 monthly. The increase would help families get enough to eat, likely increase consumption of fruits and vegetables, and possibly attract more eligible families to WIC.[21] It would also offer an opportunity to assess whether a permanent increase would be beneficial.

Providing meals and snacks for young adults in homeless shelters. Children receive meals and snacks at emergency homeless shelters through the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP). The bill would temporarily allow young adults ages 18 through 24 to receive meals and snacks at shelters as well. This provision, designed to ensure that more low-income young adults have access to food assistance, would remain in effect for the duration of the COVID-19 public health emergency. CBO estimates that enacting this provision would cost $180 million.[22]

TABLE 1
Estimated Increase in SNAP Benefits, by State, From 15 Percent Increase in Maximum Benefit
      Under a 15% Increase in SNAP Maximum Benefits
State Number of SNAP Participants in Latest Month With Available Dataa (thousands) Average Monthly Benefit Increase Per Person Estimated Total Monthly Benefit Increase Statewide (millions) Estimated Total 3-month Benefit Increase Statewide (millions) Share of Increase Going to Households With Income Below 50 Percent of Federal Poverty Level
Alabama 794 $27 $21 $64 43%
Alaska 74 $37 $3 $8 50%
Arizona 909 $27 $24 $73 45%
Arkansas 392 $27 $11 $32 40%
California 4,305 $27 $117 $351 53%
Colorado 498 $27 $14 $41 40%
Connecticut 365 $28 $10 $30 34%
Delaware 126 $27 $3 $10 37%
District of Columbia 132 $28 $4 $11 60%
Florida 3,505 $27 $96 $289 31%
Georgia 1,875 $27 $51 $152 47%
Hawaii 179 $50 $9 $27 38%
Idaho 138 $27 $4 $11 34%
Illinois 1,905 $27 $52 $155 41%
Indiana 664 $27 $18 $53 38%
Iowa 377 $27 $10 $31 34%
Kansas 202 $27 $5 $16 36%
Kentucky 628 $27 $17 $51 45%
Louisiana 1,013 $27 $27 $82 50%
Maine 157 $27 $4 $13 20%
Maryland 798 $27 $22 $66 36%
Massachusetts 890 $28 $25 $74 33%
Michigan 1,264 $27 $35 $104 33%
Minnesota 442 $27 $12 $36 35%
Mississippi 423 $27 $11 $34 44%
Missouri 702 $27 $19 $57 41%
Montana 96 $27 $3 $8 34%
Nebraska 154 $27 $4 $12 37%
Nevada 484 $27 $13 $39 42%
New Hampshire 70 $27 $2 $6 18%
New Jersey 788 $27 $21 $64 27%
New Mexico 448 $27 $12 $36 40%
New York 2,743 $28 $76 $227 28%
North Carolina 1,463 $27 $40 $119 39%
North Dakota 47 $27 $1 $4 40%
Ohio 1,401 $27 $38 $114 36%
Oklahoma 626 $27 $17 $50 46%
Oregon 671 $28 $19 $56 38%
Pennsylvania 1,834 $27 $50 $151 29%
Rhode Island 138 $28 $4 $12 37%
South Carolina 604 $27 $16 $49 45%
South Dakota 76 $27 $2 $6 43%
Tennessee 912 $27 $25 $74 48%
Texas 3,703 $27 $99 $296 43%
Utah 171 $26 $5 $14 39%
Vermont 68 $28 $2 $6 18%
Virginia 753 $27 $20 $61 43%
Washington 951 $28 $26 $79 34%
West Virginia 305 $27 $8 $25 44%
Wisconsin 738 $27 $20 $60 30%
Wyoming 28 $27 $1 $2 39%
Guam 46 $38 $2 $5 44%
Virgin Islands 25 $35 $1 $3 65%

Notes:

a The latest month for which USDA has published data on the number of SNAP participants in every state is September 2020. For many states, however, we have compiled more recent data from publicly available information. The figures in this table are the most recent available for each state as of early February, except that we use the USDA September 2020 figure if the state-reported data differ substantially from the USDA data.

Sources: CBPP analysis of fiscal year 2018 SNAP USDA Household Characteristics data and recent administrative data that states post publicly or report to USDA, https://www.fns.usda.gov/pd/supplemental-nutrition-assistance-program-snap.

TABLE 2
Estimated Increase in SNAP State Administrative Expense Funding, by State
State Estimated Additional Funding for State Administration of SNAP (millions)a
Alabama $16
Alaska $3
Arizona $19
Arkansas $10
California $124
Colorado $14
Connecticut $10
Delaware $3
District of Columbia $4
Florida $131
Georgia $53
Hawai’i $5
Idaho $3
Illinois $58
Indiana $15
Iowa $7
Kansas $4
Kentucky $15
Louisiana $20
Maine $4
Maryland $25
Massachusetts $26
Michigan $34
Minnesota $11
Mississippi $9
Missouri $18
Montana $2
Nebraska $3
Nevada $12
New Hampshire $2
New Jersey $19
New Mexico $12
New York $74
North Carolina $35
North Dakota $1
Ohio $30
Oklahoma $37
Oregon $20
Pennsylvania $46
Rhode Island $4
South Carolina $13
South Dakota $2
Tennessee $18
Texas $90
Utah $3
Vermont $2
Virginia $19
Washington $26
West Virginia $7
Wisconsin $19
Wyoming $1
Guam $1
Virgin Islands $1

Notes and sources:

a The bill provides $1.135 billion in additional 100 percent federal funding for state administrative expenses, with 75 percent of the funding to be allocated based each state’s share of total SNAP participation for the past 12 months, and 25 percent of funding to be allocated based on each state’s share of the number of additional SNAP participants in the last 12 months. The estimates are based on the allocation of a similar provision from the December COVID package. See USDA, “Disbursement of SNAP State Administrative Expense Funding Provided by Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021” memorandum to SNAP State Agencies and Food and Nutrition Service Regional SNAP Directors, February 5, 2021.

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End Notes

[1]For the House bill text, see https://budget.house.gov/sites/democrats.budget.house.gov/files/documents/S%20Con%20Res%205%20Bill%20Final.pdf. The food assistance provisions were passed by two committees: Agriculture and Education and Labor.

[2] CBPP, “Tracking the COVID-19 Recession’s Effects on Food, Housing, and Employment Hardships,” updated February 24, 2021, https://www.cbpp.org/research/poverty-and-inequality/tracking-the-covid-19-recessions-effects-on-food-housing-and.

[3] Zoë Neuberger, “New USDA Guidance Clarifies States’ P-EBT Flexibility to Mitigate Child Hunger,” CBPP, February 4, 2021, https://www.cbpp.org/blog/new-usda-guidance-clarifies-states-p-ebt-flexibility-to-mitigate-child-hunger.

[4] See Brynne Keith-Jennings, “Boosting SNAP: Benefit Increase Would Help Children in Short and Long Term,” CBPP, July 30, 2020, https://www.cbpp.org/blog/boosting-snap-benefit-increase-would-help-children-in-short-and-long-term.

[5] For more information see Dorothy Rosenbaum, Stacy Dean, and Zoë Neuberger, “The Case for Boosting SNAP Benefits in the Next Major Economic Response Package,” CBPP, updated May 22, 2020, www.cbpp.org/research/food-assistance/the-case-for-boosting-snap-benefits-in-next-major-economic-response-package. For basic information about the SNAP benefit calculation see CBPP, “A Quick Guide to SNAP Eligibility and Benefits,” updated September 1, 2020, https://www.cbpp.org/research/food-assistance/a-quick-guide-to-snap-eligibility-and-benefits.

[6] CBO, “Cost Estimate: Reconciliation Recommendations of the House Committee on Agriculture,” February 13, 2021, https://www.cbo.gov/system/files/2021-02/hagreconciliation.pdf.

[7] Mark Nord and Mark Prell, “Food Security of SNAP Recipients Improved Following the 2009 Stimulus Package,” USDA, Economic Research Service, June 2011, https://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2011/june/food-security-of-snap/.

[8] Patrick Canning and Rosanna Mentzer Morrison, “Quantifying the Impact of SNAP Benefits on the U.S. Economy and Jobs,” USDA, Economic Research Service, July 18, 2019, https://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2019/july/quantifying-the-impact-of-snap-benefits-on-the-us-economy-and-jobs/.

[9] Based on CBPP analysis of 2018 SNAP Household Characteristics data.

[10] White House, “Fact Sheet: President Biden’s New Executive Actions Deliver Economic Relief for American Families and Businesses Amid the COVID-19 Crises,” January 22, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/01/22/fact-sheet-president-bidens-new-executive-actions-deliver-economic-relief-for-american-families-and-businesses-amid-the-covid-19-crises/. See also Dorothy Rosenbaum, “Executive Action on Food Assistance Strengthens Federal Response to Hunger,” CBPP, January 22, 2021, https://www.cbpp.org/press/statements/rosenbaum-executive-action-on-food-assistance-strengthens-federal-response-to.

[11] Also, USDA would receive $15 million under the bill for SNAP program management and oversight.

[12] The District of Columbia, Guam, and the Virgin Islands are considered states and participate in SNAP on the same basis as states.

[13] Javier Balmaceda, “Long in Recession, Puerto Rico Needs More Than Just COVID-19 Relief to Overcome Its Crises,” CBPP, May 7, 2020, https://www.cbpp.org/research/economy/long-in-recession-puerto-rico-needs-more-than-just-covid-19-relief-to-overcome-its.

[14] Brynne Keith-Jennings, “Puerto Rico Nutrition Benefit Cuts Risk Food Insecurity, Show Block Grant’s Limits,” February 4, 2020, https://www.cbpp.org/blog/puerto-rico-nutrition-benefit-cuts-risk-food-insecurity-show-block-grants-limits.

[15] See CBO, “Cost Estimate: Reconciliation Recommendations of the House Committee on Education and Labor,” February 17, 2021, https://www.cbo.gov/system/files/2021-02/hEdandLaborreconciliationestimate.pdf.

[16] See Ann M. Collins et al., “Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer for Children (SEBTC) Demonstration: Summary Report,” Abt Associates, May 2016, https://fns-prod.azureedge.net/sites/default/files/ops/sebtcfinalreport.pdf, Figure 4.8; Jin Huang, Ellen Barnidge, and Youngmi Kim, “Children receiving free or reduced-price school lunch have higher food insufficiency rates in summer,” Journal of Nutrition, Vol. 145, No. 9, September 2015.

[17] See Collins et al., op. cit.

[18] See Steven Carlson and Zoë Neuberger, “WIC Works: Addressing the Nutrition and Health Needs of Low-Income Families for More Than Four Decades,” CBPP, updated January 27, 2021, www.cbpp.org/wicworks.

[19] See Samantha Artiga et al., “Racial Disparities in Maternal and Infant Health: An Overview,” Kaiser Family Foundation, November 10, 2020, https://www.kff.org/report-section/racial-disparities-in-maternal-and-infant-health-an-overview-issue-brief/.

[20] Zoë Neuberger, “Biden Plan’s WIC Investment Could Improve Maternal and Child Health, Reduce Racial Disparities,” CBPP, January 26, 2021, https://www.cbpp.org/blog/biden-plans-wic-investment-could-improve-maternal-and-child-health-reduce-racial-disparities.

[21] See discussion of participant satisfaction with the fruit and vegetable benefits and research on their impact on consumption of fruits and vegetables in “Review of WIC Food Packages: Improving Balance and Choice: Final Report (2017),” National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, Chapter 2 and Appendix E, https://www.nap.edu/catalog/23655/review-of-wic-food-packages-improving-balance-and-choice-final.

[22] This provision would last through the duration of the public health emergency, which CBO estimates will end in July 2022. See CBO, “Cost Estimate: Reconciliation Recommendations of the House Committee on Education and Labor.”