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Biden pumps up food benefits

SNAP gets the biggest increase in the history of U.S. food stamps


Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack holds up a SNAP EBT card at the White House. Associated Press/Photo by Evan Vucci (file)

Biden pumps up food benefits

Jocelyn Brisson grew up on food stamps. When she was 18, she applied for her own benefits card. She stayed in the program for the next 30 years, sometimes trading her card for cash to buy drugs or cigarettes. When Brisson became a Christian at the Watered Gardens homeless shelter in Joplin, Mo., (WORLD’s 2019 Hope Awards winner), the staff encouraged her to support herself through work and let the church help her, if needed. Brisson was nervous to give up the government support: “[Food stamps] had always been my security blanket, because that was kind of all I knew,” she said. Now she is the shelter director and coaches others to stop relying on government benefits.

“Now I know as an independent woman, I’m capable of doing that, and the sky’s the limit,” she said. “I can do anything I want.”

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly food stamps, provides monthly assistance to more than 42 million Americans. President Donald Trump sent the Department of Agriculture (USDA) on a mission to trim the program’s costs and focus the help on those who needed it most. Now President Joe Biden’s administration is giving SNAP the biggest boost in the program’s history. Some praise the move as long overdue, but others say it improperly bypassed Congress and comes with unintended consequences.

On Aug. 16, the USDA unveiled its Thrifty Food Plan, which is used to calculate how much a family of four would spend on groceries. The government developed the plan (originally called the Economy Food Plan) in 1962 and since then left it largely the same besides adjusting for inflation.

In recent years, critics complained SNAP recipients couldn’t afford healthy food at today’s prices. The program pays an average of $138 per person, per month, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Research by the USDA showed that SNAP households spent most of their benefits within the first two weeks of the month.

Critics also argued that the plan was unrealistic: It assumed families had no food allergies, bought only the cheapest brands, and spent an unreasonable amount of time preparing food at home. The 2018 farm bill included a provision requiring the USDA to update the plan using specific criteria by 2022 and subsequently every five years.

In August, Biden’s USDA researchers announced the results of their revision. They used healthy diet recommendations and Americans’ consumption patterns to produce what they said was a workable, affordable, and nutritious monthly grocery plan. The plan is broken into food categories like meat, poultry, dairy, and sweets, and it estimates how many pounds of each the family members need per week. The new plan added calories to the previous iteration. But the biggest change was the plan’s 21 percent cost increase: It now budgets an average of $36.24 more per person per month. The increase will take effect Oct. 1.

Democrats have worked to expand the SNAP program for years. During the pandemic, they seized reports of increased hunger in the United States as evidence of the program’s inadequacy. Pandemic legislation streamlined the process to claim SNAP benefits, removed restrictions on SNAP families, and increased the benefits amount by 15 percent. Those changes were temporary; the increase from the Thrifty Food Plan will be permanent.

American Enterprise Institute scholar Angela Rachidi said such a significant increase in SNAP funds should have happened through Congress. The increase was “the direct result of arbitrary decisions made by USDA researchers and executive staff—all done without congressional scrutiny and absent public comment,” she wrote. “Administrative policy has always been to conduct the reevaluation [of the Thrifty Food Plan] within the current cost constraints of SNAP.”

More importantly, Rachidi warned that more SNAP benefits could discourage recipients from work, the No. 1 thing that lifts families out of poverty and provides the dignity of independence from government support, as Jocelyn Brisson learned. “Research shows that benefit-eligible households worked less after the introduction of the Food Stamp Program in the 1970s,” Rachidi wrote. “Thus, it is reasonable to expect that increasing the SNAP benefit by such a large amount will make work less attractive to low-income households.”


Charissa Koh

Charissa is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty-fighting and criminal justice. She resides with her family in Atlanta.

@CharissaKoh

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