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SNAP Benefit Boost Would Get Needed Food Aid to the Poorest Participants, Who Have Been Left Out

September 16, 2020

Congress may head home at the end of September without passing needed additional stimulus measures to respond to the alarming numbers of families that are struggling to put enough food on the table and facing other economic hardships due to COVID-19. A top priority for lawmakers this month should be raising SNAP (food stamp) benefits as a way of mitigating hardship and injecting fast, high “bang-for-the-buck” stimulus into the economy. We estimate that this would help more than 16 million people, including 7 million children, who live in households that participate in SNAP and who have not received extra SNAP COVID-emergency benefits.

"A top priority for lawmakers this month should be raising SNAP (food stamp) benefits as a way of mitigating hardship and injecting fast, high “bang-for-the-buck” stimulus into the economy."We’ve recommended increasing the SNAP maximum allotment by 15 percent until economic measures show that unemployment is no longer significantly elevated. That would amount to about $25 more per person per month, or just under $100 per month in food assistance for a family of four. The House-passed Heroes Act includes a time-limited 15 percent bump in SNAP benefits. This increase would ensure that the poorest SNAP households receive additional help from SNAP at a time when many households face severe hardship.[1] The relief proposals offered by the White House and Senate Republican leadership, however, have been inadequate and include no additional food assistance.[2]

SNAP Boost Would Alleviate High Levels of Food Hardship

The Census’ Household Pulse Survey (collected over recent months and through late August) and other surveys reveal an ongoing and urgent crisis,[3] with millions struggling to pay for food, housing, and other basic needs.[4] About 10 percent of all adults reported that their household sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat in the last seven days, according to the latest data, collected August 19 through 31. While not directly comparable, this figure shows how high food needs are compared to pre-pandemic times: about 3.7 percent of adults reported that their household had “not enough to eat” sometimes or often in the 12 months of 2019, CBPP analysis of Department of Agriculture (USDA) data show.

The hardship figures reported in the Household Pulse data are even higher for Black and Latino adults, with 19 percent of Black and 17 percent of Latino adults reporting that their household sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat in the last seven days, compared to 7 percent of white adults.[5] These disproportionate impacts reflect harsh, longstanding inequities, often stemming from structural racism. For example, Black and Latino people disproportionately work in low-paying industries that have incurred deep job losses during this recession.

Also alarming, 9 to 14 percent of adults with children reported that their children sometimes or often didn’t eat enough in the last seven days because they couldn’t afford it, the data show. That translates into millions of children. These figures have also risen sharply, with about 1 percent of adults with children in 2019 USDA data reporting that children were sometimes or often not eating enough at some point in the last 30 days, compared to up to 14 percent reporting this problem within the last seven days in the Pulse data. (Note that the most recent Pulse survey results are not comparable to data from prior weeks due to some methodological issues.) As we’ve written, children not getting enough to eat is especially concerning because it can lead to worse developmental, health, and even economic outcomes for them later in life.[6]

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act of March included an important provision to let states give SNAP households temporary emergency allotments up to the maximum benefit that a SNAP household can receive. (See box, “Emergency Allotments Leave Out Millions.”) These allotments help boost benefits for millions of households, but they do not help the poorest SNAP households, including about 1 in 3 SNAP families with children, which include at least 5 million children. Children who live in households with monthly disposable income below 15 percent of the poverty line (about $266 for a family of three) are not helped at all by the SNAP emergency allotments. Another 2 to 3 million children receive less than about $25 per person per month, the amount they would receive under a 15 percent increase to SNAP maximum benefits.

This group is missing out on much-needed food assistance at a time when food needs have risen at an alarming rate, particularly among households with children and people of color.

Emergency Allotments Leave Out Millions

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act provided several temporary but important flexibilities and benefit changes to supplement SNAP’s existing abilities to address the short-term public health emergency. For SNAP benefits, the Families First Act provided authority for USDA to approve state waiver requests to temporarily raise SNAP allotments to address increased food needs.

USDA interpreted the new authority as allowing states to increase household benefits to the level of the SNAP maximum allotment for those households that don’t otherwise receive the maximum allotment. All states used the authority to increase benefits to the maximum amount for each household size. While these SNAP emergency allotments are providing a measure of economic stimulus and alleviating hardship for the households receiving them, nearly 40 percent of SNAP households already receive the SNAP maximum benefit and thus cannot receive any additional resources for food under this provision. As a result, the benefit increase is not well targeted to those with the lowest incomes and the greatest needs.

These SNAP households are, by definition, the SNAP households with the lowest incomes; they receive the maximum benefit because they have no disposable income available to purchase food under the SNAP benefit calculation rules. (Some of these households likely received or will receive additional benefits through the Pandemic EBT (P-EBT) program, through which states are providing school meal replacement benefits. But these benefits are compensating families for lost food assistance; they are not providing any additional support to address rising food costs or increased hardship, and these benefits are set to expire at the end of September without congressional action.)

The emergency allotments are available only while federal and state emergency or disaster declarations are in effect and only for as long as USDA chooses to approve them. USDA is approving the waivers on a month-by-month basis at this time. It has approved all states that requested it to issue emergency allotments as long as the state has a state emergency declaration order in place. All states with such an order, except Nebraska, have sought the emergency allotments for every month of the pandemic. Nebraska recently reported that it will not seek a waiver for September.a

a CBPP, “States Are Using Much-Needed Temporary Flexibility in SNAP to Respond to COVID-19 Challenges,” updated September 15, 2020, https://www.cbpp.org/research/food-assistance/states-are-using-much-needed-temporary-flexibility-in-snap-to-respond-to.

Table 1 below provides information for each state on the children in SNAP households who are not being helped by the current emergency allotments. These estimates are based on the number of households in each state before the pandemic (specifically, December 2019 to February 2020) and the SNAP Household Characteristics data for fiscal year 2018, the most recent detailed information about SNAP recipients. These estimates are almost certainly too low, as they do not take into account additional households that are now participating in SNAP as a result of the economic crisis.[7]

Table 2 shows the same information for SNAP participants of all ages. These estimates show that nearly 12 million individuals did not receive an increase in benefits because they were already at the maximum allotment. More than 16 million people would receive more assistance through the 15 percent increase than they have under the emergency allotments. These figures include children, adults in households with children, and adult-only households.

Children missing out on additional SNAP benefits is concerning, especially given the high rates of food hardship and the serious long-term consequences for children who miss out on basic nutrition; these should spur policymakers to respond immediately. While the risk is greatest for children who chronically lack sufficient food, the shock of becoming food insecure may itself affect children’s behavior,[8] and living in a household that’s even temporarily food insecure is linked with negative development among toddlers, some research suggests.[9]

Boosting SNAP benefits can be done in addition to the emergency allotments, and both are important complementary boosts. Congress can provide the 15 percent increase to maximum benefits while states continue to provide emergency allotments, expanding the reach of food assistance to the very needy. Emergency allotments will phase out as states end their public health emergency declarations or when Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar determines that there is no longer a federal public health emergency. When emergency allotments end, a 15 percent benefit boost could continue to mitigate against food insecurity as well as help support the economy.

The severity of food hardship is clear, and policymakers must address this problem in the next economic relief package. Evidence shows that raising SNAP benefits and offering other nutrition supports, such as P-EBT, reduce hardship and provide economic stimulus by putting more money in the hands of those who will likely spend it the fastest.

TABLE 1
Millions of Children in SNAP Households Not Helped by SNAP Emergency Allotments
State Estimated number of children participating in SNAP pre-pandemic (Dec 2019-Feb 2020) (in 000s) Number of children in households not helped by emergency allotments (in 000s) Share of children not helped at all because their families already receive SNAP's maximum benefit Number of children not helped or helped by less than they would receive under a 15% increase to maximum benefits (in 000s) Share of children not helped or helped by less than they would receive under a 15 percent increase to maximum benefits
United States 16,145 4,726 29% 7,357 46%
Alabama 328 96 29% 149 46%
Alaska 33 11 33% 14 42%
Arizona 369 117 32% 175 47%
Arkansas 162 41 25% 62 38%
California 2,000 546 27% 1,026 51%
Colorado 198 58 29% 86 43%
Connecticut 129 40 31% 58 45%
Delaware 52 15 29% 20 38%
District of Columbia 37 13 35% 21 57%
Florida 1,084 296 27% 486 45%
Georgia 642 246 38% 335 52%
Guam 24 7 29% 9 38%
Hawai’i 59 11 19% 16 27%
Idaho 69 17 25% 25 36%
Illinois 765 214 28% 316 41%
Indiana 268 76 28% 113 42%
Iowa 128 28 22% 41 32%
Kansas 86 27 31% 36 41%
Kentucky 194 53 27% 80 41%
Louisiana 367 131 36% 191 52%
Maine 54 8 15% 14 26%
Maryland 237 70 30% 95 40%
Massachusetts 266 81 30% 118 44%
Michigan 439 139 32% 193 44%
Minnesota 175 16 9% 68 39%
Mississippi 208 60 29% 89 43%
Missouri 299 113 38% 149 50%
Montana 41 10 24% 15 37%
Nebraska 75 22 29% 30 39%
Nevada 176 43 24% 66 38%
New Hampshire 30 4 13% 7 23%
New Jersey 295 64 22% 103 35%
New Mexico 190 40 21% 74 39%
New York 951 209 22% 442 46%
North Carolina 501 258 51% 351 70%
North Dakota 21 6 30% 9 45%
Ohio 571 182 32% 255 45%
Oklahoma 266 90 34% 131 49%
Oregon 189 48 25% 75 40%
Pennsylvania 608 183 30% 265 44%
Rhode Island 48 19 40% 25 52%
South Carolina 268 95 35% 135 50%
South Dakota 38 15 39% 18 47%
Tennessee 372 129 35% 203 55%
Texas 1,740 498 29% 758 44%
Utah 85 18 21% 32 38%
Vermont 22 4 18% 7 32%
Virgin Islands 9 3 33% 5 56%
Virginia 312 94 30% 149 48%
Washington 273 70 26% 101 37%
West Virginia 109 38 35% 55 50%
Wisconsin 247 56 23% 80 32%
Wyoming 12 4 33% 5 42%

Note: The estimates do not take into account additional households that the state has certified as a result of the economic crisis.

Sources: CBPP calculations from USDA program data and fiscal year 2018 SNAP Household Characteristics data.

TABLE 2
15% Benefit Increase Would Help 16 Million People Who Are Left Out of SNAP Emergency Allotments
State Estimated number of SNAP participants pre-pandemic (Dec 2019-Feb 2020) (in 000s) Number of participants not helped by emergency allotments (in 000s) Share of participants not helped at all because their families already receive SNAP's maximum benefit Number of participants not helped or helped by less than $25 per person per month (in 000s) Share of participants not helped or helped by less than they would receive under a 15 percent increase to maximum benefits
United States 37,071 11,807 32% 16,516 45%
Alabama 707 198 28% 291 41%
Alaska 80 30 38% 36 45%
Arizona 780 272 35% 363 47%
Arkansas 344 85 25% 121 35%
California 4,045 1,523 38% 2,236 55%
Colorado 434 137 32% 195 45%
Connecticut 360 146 41% 184 51%
Delaware 118 35 30% 44 37%
District of Columbia 109 49 45% 63 58%
Florida 2,683 747 28% 1,100 41%
Georgia 1,344 490 36% 639 48%
Guam 42 14 33% 17 40%
Hawai’i 153 32 21% 41 27%
Idaho 146 35 24% 48 33%
Illinois 1,768 590 33% 790 45%
Indiana 563 157 28% 227 40%
Iowa 296 75 25% 99 33%
Kansas 192 56 29% 74 39%
Kentucky 486 140 29% 190 39%
Louisiana 784 274 35% 380 48%
Maine 154 31 20% 49 32%
Maryland 598 172 29% 232 39%
Massachusetts 762 264 35% 357 47%
Michigan 1,166 406 35% 528 45%
Minnesota 392 64 16% 150 38%
Mississippi 427 120 28% 167 39%
Missouri 660 219 33% 290 44%
Montana 105 29 28% 39 37%
Nebraska 154 45 29% 59 38%
Nevada 414 134 32% 171 41%
New Hampshire 72 14 19% 20 28%
New Jersey 670 160 24% 232 35%
New Mexico 446 117 26% 175 39%
New York 2,567 902 35% 1,338 52%
North Carolina 1,219 579 47% 746 61%
North Dakota 48 16 33% 22 46%
Ohio 1,372 449 33% 600 44%
Oklahoma 573 191 33% 262 46%
Oregon 582 190 33% 250 43%
Pennsylvania 1,727 536 31% 710 41%
Rhode Island 146 58 40% 74 51%
South Carolina 572 183 32% 252 44%
South Dakota 78 30 38% 39 50%
Tennessee 854 287 34% 410 48%
Texas 3,214 846 26% 1,254 39%
Utah 164 41 25% 64 39%
Vermont 68 22 32% 30 44%
Virgin Islands 21 7 33% 11 52%
Virginia 686 198 29% 292 43%
Washington 796 246 31% 331 42%
West Virginia 305 99 32% 129 42%
Wisconsin 600 149 25% 200 33%
Wyoming 26 8 31% 10 38%

Note: The estimates do not take into account additional households that the state has certified as a result of the economic crisis.

Sources: CBPP calculations from USDA program data and fiscal year 2018 SNAP Household Characteristics data.

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End Notes

[1] CBPP, “Tracking the COVID-19 Recession’s Effects on Food, Housing, and Employment Hardships,” September 11, 2020, https://www.cbpp.org/research/poverty-and-inequality/tracking-the-covid-19-recessions-effects-on-food-housing-and; and Brynne Keith-Jennings, “Food Need Very High Compared to Pre-Pandemic Levels, Making Relief Imperative,” CBPP, September 10, 2020, https://www.cbpp.org/blog/food-need-very-high-compared-to-pre-pandemic-levels-making-relief-imperative.

[2] Sharon Parrott, “With Millions Facing Serious Hardship, McConnell Plan Doesn’t Meet Nation’s Needs,” CBPP, September 8, 2020, https://www.cbpp.org/blog/with-millions-facing-serious-hardship-mcconnell-plan-doesnt-meet-nations-needs.

[3] Michael Karpman et al., “The COVID-19 Pandemic Is Straining Families’ Abilities to Afford Basic Needs,” Urban Institute, April 28, 2020, https://www.urban.org/research/publication/covid-19-pandemic-straining-families-abilities-afford-basic-needs; and Lauren Bauer, “The COVID-19 crisis has already left too many children hungry in America,” Brookings Institution, May 6, 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2020/05/06/the-covid-19-crisis-has-already-left-too-many-children-hungry-in-america/#cancel.

[4] CBPP, “Tracking the COVID-19 Recession’s Effects on Food, Housing, and Employment Hardships,” updated September 11, 2020, https://www.cbpp.org/research/poverty-and-inequality/tracking-the-covid-19-recessions-effects-on-food-housing-and.

[5] Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey for August 19-31, September 9, 2020, https://www.census.gov/data/tables/2020/demo/hhp/hhp13.html.

[6] 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.

[7] Available data suggest that from February to June 2020, the number of SNAP participants grew by 17 percent nationally, an increase of about 6-7 million people. See CBPP, “Tracking the COVID-19 Recession’s Effects on Food, Housing, and Employment Hardships,” updated September 11, 2020, https://www.cbpp.org/research/poverty-and-inequality/tracking-the-covid-19-recessions-effects-on-food-housing-and.

[8] Rachel Tolbert Kimbro and Justin T. Denney, “Transitions Into Food Insecurity Associated With Behavioral Problems And Worse Overall Health Among Children,” Health Affairs, November 2015, https://www.healthaffairs.org/doi/full/10.1377/hlthaff.2015.0626.

[9] Daphne C. Hernandez and Alison Jacknowitz, “Transient, but not persistent, adult food insecurity influences toddler development,” Journal of Nutrition, Vol. 139, No.8, August 2009, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19535426/.