Anti-hunger advocates expect Biden administration to bolster safety net

Anti-hunger advocates are celebrating the outcome of the presidential election, which they say creates a new opportunity to push back against escalating food insecurity in the United States — and they have plenty of ideas for what needs to be done.

Since the pandemic began in March, the government has authorized a series of emergency programs to help in-need families put food on the table. But amid legislative gridlock and the administration’s often hostile stance on the safety net, those measures have failed to halt an unprecedented rise in food insecurity among American households, particularly families of color. According to recent Census data, more than four in 10 American children live in households that are struggling to afford such basic expenses as food and medical care; 18 percent of Black adults and 17 percent of Latino adults reported that they could not afford enough food for their children.

Both President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris have supported federal assistance for struggling families, on the campaign trail and during their time in government. Harris co-sponsored a bill to boost SNAP benefits by 15 percent — a provision included in the Heroes Act that thousands of organizations have pushed for but that House Republicans have opposed. Biden, for his part, has vocally supported the increase; advocates also point to his role in the economic recovery that followed the 2008 financial crisis as indicative of his commitment to helping Americans get back on their feet.

While certain policies rely on legislative changes and thus will be partly contingent on the outcome of two Georgia Senate races that are slated for runoff elections in January, “There’s a whole lot Biden and Harris can do administratively that they don’t need Congress for,” said Joel Berg, CEO of the nonprofit Hunger Free America. “With a competent secretary of agriculture, they can do a lot, rapidly,” he said, citing Biden’s pledge to reverse Trump’s public charge rule, which has curbed immigrants’ access to food assistance and other benefits. Berg also urged creation of a “hunger czar” to manage the response, particularly for the duration of the pandemic

The president-elect has also criticized Trump’s attempt to restrict SNAP benefits, and could unilaterally undo other cuts to the safety net that have exacerbated economic hardship — just as Trump unilaterally imposed them.

In addition to the public charge rule, the Trump administration has repeatedly tried to tighten work eligibility requirements for SNAP, and appealed after a federal judge blocked the policy due to the pandemic. The administration is currently battling lawsuits from California and Pennsylvania over a policy that excludes roughly 40 percent of SNAP households — those already receiving maximum benefits — from pandemic food aid.

“The next administration would back up off the rulemaking that this administration has done,” said Lauren Bauer, a fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution. “None of those are policy goals that the Biden administration would pursue. You would expect that a Biden administration would make it a priority to ease administrative hurdles.”

Food policy and entitlements are often framed as highly partisan issues, but in some cases the current administration has refused to honor even Republican governors’ demands for assistance. As far back as March, officials, including Republican Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, asked the USDA to extend DSNAP, which allows flexibility in the context of disasters, to the pandemic; the USDA resisted, despite advocacy groups throwing their support behind the expansion. (At the time, Sen. Harris introduced legislation to expand DSNAP to include pandemics.)

“USDA has drawn a bright line between what they consider a disaster and not a disaster in terms of DSNAP, one that I don’t think is warranted,” said Ellen Vollinger, legal director of the Food Research & Action Center.

Berg, of Hunger Free America, attributed the USDA’s resistance on DSNAP to politics. “They probably didn’t want to admit the pandemic was a pandemic,” he said. “There has been a colossal number of truly horrific decisions with real-life consequences.”

As Covid-19 infections rise across the country, Vollinger said, “the focus must be on getting food into people’s hands” without compromising their safety. Doing so is less a question of creating new policies than of authorizing and expanding pre-existing ones, while increasing enrollment in available programs. “One of the biggest disappointments we’ve had with this USDA is their lack of willingness to use all the tools in the toolbox,” she said.

The next administration should also focus on expanding access to benefits, said Berg. States could consolidate benefits applications — for example, allowing families to register for SNAP and WIC, which supports pregnant women, new mothers, and young children, at the same time. “Each of these on their own might have a relatively small impact, but together they make a huge difference,” he said.

Although the USDA issued waivers and flexibilities to improve access to some programs during the pandemic, the agency invested primarily in its Farmers to Families Food Box program. The initiative, which purchases food from farmers and then distributes it through food banks, was perceived by advocates and charity staff as ineffective and wasteful; the government awarded millions of dollars in contracts to companies that had no experience with food distribution. Even if the program had been conceived and implemented more competently, they said, federal assistance — not charities — is the more effective way to fight food insecurity.

Advocates say the pressing and persistent reality of food insecurity should compel Republicans to throw their support behind nutrition assistance. “The question will be, does the Republican party revert to the historic record of being bipartisan and compassionate on these issues?” said Berg. “They’ve been railing against SNAP since the 1980s. Will they go back to a more moderate position?”

Doing so, he added, seems increasingly like a political necessity: “Kentucky has a very large hunger problem, Georgia has a very large hunger problem. There should be a strong consensus to do something.”

Boosting SNAP would not only reduce hunger, it would also help lift the U.S. economy; in fact, government data indicates that spending on food stamps has been critical in the past decade of recovery. That in itself, argued Bauer of the Brookings Institution, should garner bipartisan support.

“People who are serious about addressing the public health crisis and economic crisis know that SNAP is an equalizer, and stimulates the economy,” she said. “What’s important now is enacting sensible policy to address child food insecurity, food insecurity for families who have lost income, and doing so right away.”