The government will spend an additional $20 billion a year on food stamps, a 27-percent increase in SNAP benefits from pre-pandemic levels, after updating its figures on the cost of a healthy diet, said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Monday. Anti-hunger groups said the additional 40 cents a meal per person would help millions of Americans avoid hunger.
“This is a big day. It is an important day,” said Vilsack in announcing the largest increase in SNAP history. “We think it accurately reflects the real world.”
With the increase of $36 per person per month, SNAP benefits will average $169 a month starting Oct. 1. The increase will take effect at the same time a nine-month pandemic boost in benefits expires.
Analysts said the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP), the foundation for calculating SNAP benefits, was increasingly out of date due to changes in food prices, American eating patterns, dietary advice and nutrients in food products. Congress directed the USDA to update the TFP as part of the 2018 farm bill. It was the first time the purchasing power of the plan was changed since 1976.
“The resulting SNAP benefit increase is modest but meaningful,” said analyst Brynne Keith-Jennings of the think tank Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “The announcement is a welcome one for families across the country who can’t afford a healthy diet because SNAP benefits have long been too low.”
“A permanent boost to SNAP benefits will allow families participating in the program to be able to afford healthier food without fear of running out of benefits each month,” said Joel Berg of Hunger Free America. Three-quarters of SNAP households use up their benefits in the first half of each month, said Bread for the World. “Today’s news is a tremendous step in the right direction towards a country free from hunger,” said Luis Garcia of the Food Research and Action Center.
The senior Republicans on the Senate and House Agriculture committees said the update of the Thrifty Food Plan, directed by Congress, became a backdoor way to increase benefits by the Biden administration. Previous updates to the TFP were cost-neutral, they said.
“I’m not concerned about the longevity of this,” said Vilsack when asked about a potential rollback of benefits if Republicans gain control of Congress. “The numbers are what they are.” There is broad support in America, regardless of political party, to help people through hard times, he said. “This is a program that works.”
House Agriculture chairman David Scott said the increase in SNAP benefits “will go a long way towards reducing hunger and food insecurity in this country. It is disappointing that there are those who are still questioning any effort to provide SNAP recipients with a realistic benefit.”
At present, 42.1 million people, or one in eight Americans, are enrolled in SNAP. Participation surged by 6 million people when 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, before the pandemic and with lower enrollment and lower benefit levels, SNAP cost $60.4 billion.