Biden administration announces largest increase ever in SNAP benefits

The Biden administration will increase SNAP benefits by an average of 25 percent on Oct. 1 — the largest increase in the history of food stamps — based on a reassessment of the cost of a nutritious diet. Analysts and anti-hunger advocates said on Sunday that the increase would improve the diets of millions of poor Americans.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is scheduled to announce the increase on Monday. Over the weekend, Republicans on the Senate and House Agriculture committees protested that the administration was abandoning a precedent that the periodic updates of the Thrifty Food Plan, used to calculate SNAP benefits, would not change the cost of the program.

“This is huge,” said House Rules chairman Jim McGovern, a leading congressional advocate of SNAP. “Even before COVID hit, too many people couldn’t afford the basic human right of access to nutritious food … This is going to be a lifeline for so many hungry families.” McGovern called for a White House conference “on food, nutrition, hunger and health so we can build on our progress and put the full weight of the federal government behind ending hunger once and for all.”

Under the administration’s decision, SNAP benefits would increase by $36 per person per month from their pre-pandemic average of $121 per month, effective Oct. 1, when the temporary pandemic increase of 15 percent is due to expire. The change follows a USDA re-evaluation of how families could meet nutritional guidelines at low cost.

Congress ordered the review as part of the 2018 farm bill. President Biden endorsed the review as part of an executive order on Jan. 22, with the White House saying the Thrifty Food Plan “is out of date” and SNAP “benefits fall short of what a healthy, adequate diet costs for many households.”

Reports have repeatedly established that SNAP benefits are inadequate and often run out a week or more before the end of the month. Researchers agreed. “The maximum SNAP benefit did not cover the cost of a low-income meal in 96 percent of counties” in 2020, said the Urban Institute last month.

A 25-percent boost in individual benefits “is significant,” says Ellen Vollenger of the anti-hunger Food Research and Action Center. The average pre-pandemic benefit of $121 a month equaled $1.33 per meal. “Would someone say that is overly generous? It’s not a lot of money.”

At present, 42.1 million people, or one in eight Americans, are enrolled in SNAP. Participation surged by 6 million people when the pandemic hit. Last spring, USDA estimated SNAP would cost $114 billion this fiscal year, or $187 per person per month, due to temporary increases in benefits intended to buffer the impact of the pandemic. In fiscal 2019, with lower enrollment and lower benefit levels, SNAP cost $60.4 billion.

Overall, the increase in benefits would add billions of dollars to the cost of public nutrition. The increase was reported first by the New York Times and confirmed by USDA and congressional staff. As part of the update, USDA adjusted calorie levels to reflect the increased weight of Americans, recognized that people spend less time in food preparation than decades ago, and built in new dietary standards assuming more consumption of fish and red and orange vegetables, said the newspaper.

“This is a long overdue change that pushes SNAP to be more aligned with reality,” said economist Diane Schanzenbach of Northwestern University. In 2016, an analysis by the think tank Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said higher SNAP benefits were associated with “increases in the purchase of more nutritious foods and in time spent shopping for and preparing food, as well as with lower food insecurity among SNAP recipients.”

Tufts professor Parke Wilde said on social media, “This will be the biggest U.S. nutrition policy story of the year.” For the first time in years, he said, “USDA really tackled the fundamental question” of the cost of a healthy diet.

The senior Republicans on the Senate and House Agriculture committees asked the General Accounting Office to review the USDA’s work to make sure it was thorough and the conclusions were correct. Their page-long list of areas for examination included a request for legal analysis of the practice of “cost-neutral” updates of the Thrifty Food Plan and of “the legal justification for changing this long-standing legal position.” Democrats on the House Agriculture subcommittee on nutrition said they supported the administration’s efforts to ensure that SNAP “is up-to-date and reflective of the latest science and data available … we strongly believe that the USDA’s ongoing Thrifty Food Plan reevaluation should not be cost-neutral.”