First 100 days: From targeted assistance to SNAP reform, how Biden should tackle the hunger crisis

Two days before he was inaugurated, president-elect Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, spent Martin Luther King Jr. Day in a parking lot in Philadelphia, volunteering with Philabundance, a nonprofit that provides food to families in need. Their show of support for food-distribution efforts reflects what advocates say is a promising new start when it comes to curbing America’s hunger crisis.

President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris both have strong records of supporting federal assistance, on the campaign trail and in their time in government. But they are taking office on the heels of an administration that worked — doggedly, if not always successfully — to weaken the social safety net, and did so amid ongoing economic turmoil marked by unprecedented levels of food insecurity. Nearly 30 million Americans — 13.7 percent of adults — were sometimes or often not getting enough to eat in December, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau. With critical unemployment provisions set to end in mid-March, advocates have called on the new administration and Congress to enact legislation to address rising hardship.

Targeted food assistance will be essential, but experts say the current crisis demands broad efforts — ideally in the president’s first 100 days in office — to help families pay for basic household expenses. “Just putting more cash in people’s pockets is the ultimate solution to food insecurity, because it’s a question of families facing a trade-off in terms of their basic needs,” said Elaine Waxman, senior fellow in the Income and Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute.

Biden’s $1.9 trillion emergency relief package prolongs relief measures that will ease the burden on families struggling to pay for food. The package would extend unemployment benefits at least through September — maybe longer, depending on economic conditions. It also would extend the national moratorium on evictions, which is set to expire at the end of this month, and the recently passed 15 percent boost in SNAP benefits, for the same period. Despite slim Democratic control of Congress, Republicans have already voiced objections to the package, complicating prospects for bipartisan support.

“The robust set of measures in … Biden’s proposal would meet critical needs and is appropriate to the scale of the crisis we face,” Sharon Parrott, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said in a statement. “Given the current economic environment, the risk of providing too little economic stimulus and hardship relief far outweighs the risk of providing too much.”

Economists have long argued that increasing SNAP will both help people afford food and give the economy a much-needed boost. But the Trump administration tried repeatedly to reduce access to the program, pushing to tighten work requirements, reduce eligibility, and penalize green card applicants who sought assistance.

Even with the benefits increase, advocates say the Biden administration should pursue broader changes to SNAP. Before the pandemic, roughly half of SNAP recipients were still food-insecure, largely because the program does not account for massive disparities in the cost of living between different states.

Crystal FitzSimons, who directs research on child nutrition programs at the Food Research & Action Center, said she hopes the administration finds ways to make SNAP more responsive to these disparities. “If the maximum per-meal benefit doesn’t cover a low-cost meal in the vast majority of U.S. counties, that’s a major problem.”

SNAP’s weak purchasing power is one of the reasons so many Americans have been forced to turn to food banks during the pandemic. Increasing SNAP benefits, and tethering them more closely to cost of living, would also benefit the economy. “SNAP dollars go right back into paying for cashiers, grocery stockers, producers, and local economies, which is why I’m always so perplexed when people don’t support it,” FitzSimons said.

Throughout the pandemic, relief measures have been hampered by rollout issues and too-short mandates that led to gaps in access. “One of the biggest mistakes that’s been made in the pandemic with respect to economic issues is the stop-start rate [of programs],” said Waxman. “There’s been constant uncertainty about whether things can get extended,” leading to “delays in delivering guidance,” even after legislation was passed.

Eleventh-hour extensions led service providers to scramble and caused families to fear losing access to benefits. The Pandemic-EBT program — which transferred the dollar amount of missed school lunches onto debit cards, with benefits ranging from $250 to $450 per school-age child — is a case in point. Last spring and summer, P-EBT effectively reduced hunger and stimulated the economy. Yet despite the fact that advocates spent the summer urging lawmakers to extend the program to the current school year, Congress did so only days before it was set to expire. As a result, only three states have finalized P-EBT rollout plans for the current school year, which is halfway over.

“Hopefully we’ve learned our lesson,” Waxman said. But while certain Biden advisers have expressed support for automatic adjustments to program durations to avoid these kinds of legislative delays, the president’s relief plan does include fixed end dates.

P-EBT is among a slew of pandemic-related tweaks to food assistance programs, from school meals to WIC, that advocates say would help families well after the pandemic is over.

“P-EBT has been an amazing opportunity to make sure kids have access to nutrition resources when school is not operating,” FitzSimons said, noting that even in normal times, families could benefit from P-EBT during breaks or on holidays when in-school meals are not available.

Others have called for a universal school meal program that would provide all students with breakfast and lunch at no charge. Such a change would require Congress to provide additional funding to school nutrition programs, which have suffered crippling financial losses amid school closures. “The last year has really highlighted the additional ways we can ensure access to meals and implement them beyond the pandemic,” FitzSimons said. Guaranteeing access to school meals would be a step toward mitigating some of the education inequities the pandemic has revealed and exacerbated, she added.

As Covid-19 infection rates rise across the country and unemployment continues to soar, the urgency around sustainable relief is clear. “There’s no question,” Waxman said, “that there has been a very significant economic dislocation that people will be digging out of for years to come.”