Food stamp rolls surge by 6 million people during pandemic

Some 43 million people — or more than one in eight Americans — received food stamps in May, an increase of 6.2 million in three months since the coronavirus pandemic swept the country and economic recession threw millions of people out of work. SNAP enrollment is the highest since October 2017.

“These increases are unprecedented,” said Dottie Rosenbaum of the think tank Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “SNAP caseloads could continue to climb for some time, depending on what happens with respect to the pandemic, the economy and future legislation.”

Antihunger groups say the coronavirus relief bill under discussion in Congress should include a temporary 15 percent increase in SNAP benefits, equal to $25 a month per person. The Center on Budget and Policy says the increase “would help reduce poverty and hunger” and also act as an economic stimulus. The food insecurity rate has roughly doubled during the pandemic.

“It’s the double-digit unemployment rate (that is) driving the increase in SNAP,” said professor Diane Schanzenbach of Northwestern University. “The real question is how high will that stay. SNAP rolls are driven by the macroeconomy, and right now the increase in SNAP is the safety net working the way it should.”

SNAP enrollment skyrocketed by more than 30 percent in Florida, Georgia and Michigan, three of the largest states by population. It soared by 20 percent or more in Arkansas, Colorado, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Nevada and Ohio based on data reported by 42 states, said the Center on Budget in a report. It extrapolated the state data to a national SNAP total of 43.1 million people in May.

By coincidence, the USDA reported on Monday that 43 million people were enrolled for SNAP in April. USDA’s data typically lag two or three months behind the present day.

The USDA, which runs SNAP, had no immediate comment on Monday about the surging caseload. The Trump administration opposed earlier proposals for a temporary increase in SNAP benefits. At the White House, President Trump said Republicans would propose 10 elements for the new coronavirus bill, including a payroll tax cut.  Neither Trump nor GOP congressional leaders mentioned SNAP.

Angela Rachidi of the think tank American Enterprise Institute recommended caution in looking at the rise in SNAP numbers. States were allowed to suspend through June so-called recertifications, the periodic reviews to see if participants still qualify for food stamps. “We do not know how much of the increase is due to increased demand” or the recertifications, she said.

“I do not believe a 15 percent increase is warranted,” said Rachidi. “Most households who express food sufficiency issues are not receiving SNAP.” In addition, she said, previous coronavirus legislation increased benefits for SNAP recipients to the maximum allowed under the current limits. Ordinarily, many households receive a smaller amount because they earn some income.

SNAP participation would near 50 million people if the same portion of the population receives food stamps during the pandemic as during the Great Recession, when more than 15 percent of Americans received aid. Enrollment now is 13.4 percent of the population. Annual unemployment peaked at 9.9 percent in 2010. At present, the U.S. jobless rate is 11.1 percent, down from a peak of 14.4 percent in April.