The U.S. Department of Agriculture adjusts the benefits of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program once a year to reflect changes in food prices. The government agency will take into account two other factors on October 1, 2021, when scaling up benefits that help people buy food.
There is an unprecedented update to a frugal food plan – an estimate of the minimum cost of groceries to meet the needs of a family. The amendment is behind the largest ever sustainable increase in benefits and puts a healthy diet within reach for the 42 million Americans enrolled in SNAP, which replaced food stamps.
The other change, the end of a temporary 15% increase in SNAP benefits, will have the opposite effect to address some of the economic hardship caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The USDA says that initially, most families enrolled in the program will see their benefits increase from US$12 to $16 per person per month.
While researching for an upcoming book on the history of the food stamp program, I have found that the government has often temporarily expanded nutritional support during tough economic times. However, long-term increases in benefits are unusual. And the origin of this change is quite surprising.
How high will the SNAP benefit be?
The maximum SNAP benefit will increase to $835 per month for a family of four with low or no income. This is 21% higher than pre-pandemic levels after taking inflation into account.
From March 2020, states, which operate this federally funded program, were allowed to give each household eligible for SNAP the maximum amount of assistance for their household size as emergency assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic Is. Under normal circumstances, Snap profits are distributed on a sliding scale based on income levels.
Without emergency assistance, a person may receive benefits of as little as $20 per month. With this, they get $250.
This policy has given many families that would otherwise qualify for reduced SNAP benefits take advantage of hundreds of additional dollars per month to buy food.
The Trump administration did not offer emergency assistance to the lowest-income SNAP participants already receiving maximum benefits, but the Biden administration reversed the policy with effect from April 1, 2021.
Once the federal government announces an end to the public health crisis, these additional benefits will cease. States could exit early, and some began doing so in the spring of 2021.
What is a Thrifty Meal Plan?
The Thrifty Meal Plan is a blueprint for a budget-conscious and nutritionally adequate diet for a family of four with two children under the age of 12.
The USDA relies on this standard when determining monthly SNAP benefit amounts.
The agency created the Frugal Food Plan in 1975. A replacement for an earlier system developed in 1962, the plan included a shopping list of foods that were supposed to meet national dietary guidelines and food consumption patterns.
Many experts on food insecurity and advocates of a strong safety net have said that it does not cover the full cost of feeding a family from the start.
Over time, observers argued their assumptions that American households shop for and prepare food, as well as what they actually eat, have become more and more unrealistic.
For example, the old plan expected families to spend more than two hours a day preparing meals from scratch and expected them to eat more than five pounds of beans a week.
The new scheme allows people to reap the benefits of spending more on prepared foods, vegetables and grains, as well as dairy products and other sources of protein.
Why haven’t profits increased in the past?
As of 2021, the USDA only updated the Frugal Food Plan in 1983, 1999 and 2006 to accommodate changing nutritional guidance and food preferences.
But the USDA never revised the frugal food plan in such a way that it would cost more, apart from inflation-related adjustments, to buy the recommended food. So the government never increased the purchasing power of nutritional benefits.
The USDA acknowledged in 2006 that the Frugal Eating Plan was less than necessary for a nutritious diet. But it didn’t modify the Thrifty Food plan to fix that problem because the agency concluded it wasn’t possible to do so without spending more on Snap.
The 2018 Farm Bill requires the USDA to update the Frugal Food Plan by studying “current food prices, food composition data, consumption patterns, and dietary guidance.”
It called for a review every five years till 2022 and thereafter. The USDA completed the review in August 2021.
What difference will the increase make?
Anti-poverty advocates have long argued that SNAP benefits are too small.
Even in a strong economy, more than 1 in 5 Snap recipients will use their benefits by the middle of the month, and 1 in 3 will exhaust them by the end of the third week.
And 61% of SNAP recipients said the cost of healthy eating prevented them from eating better, according to research released in June 2021 from the USDA.
Researchers estimate that the maximum benefit will now cover modest food costs in 79% of counties, compared to only 4% of counties under the old formula.
This update to national nutrition standards could lift 2.4 million SNAP recipients, including more than 1 million children, out of poverty, a think tank, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, estimates.
How did this happen?
In making this change, the Biden administration continued the process of the Republican-controlled Congress three years earlier.
Republicans won a majority in both houses in 2018, when President Donald J. Trump signs the agriculture bill into law. But it doesn’t look like Republican lawmakers are made to make that change. In fact, Republican lawmakers such as the Trump White House have repeatedly sought to curtail SNAP benefits.
Former representative K. Michael Conway, a Republican who was instrumental in getting the bill passed by Congress, has said the law was drafted under the assumption that the USDA would avoid changes to the Frugal Food Plan that would increase benefits.
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Republican lawmakers have been criticizing SNAP profit increases, calling them “a brazen executive branch exploitation of Congressional intent.” Two GOP members of Congress have asked a government watchdog agency to review the administration’s actions.
The USDA has insisted that the data led to these changes and that compliance with the requirements of the Agriculture Bill made them necessary.
Without further action by Congress, future administrations will reconsider the Frugal Food Plan every five years and may use it again to adjust the amount of SNAP benefits.