On Monday, House Democrats released
a $2.2 trillion economic relief package in an effort to restart negotiations
with the White House over another coronavirus relief package. Included in their
proposal are several provisions that could expand the Supplemental Nutrition
Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly called Food Stamps, for years to come.
Lawmakers should resist these efforts. Instead, they should focus on ways to
help vulnerable Americans return to work.
Congress already legislated a
historic expansion to SNAP benefits in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Current
provisions have addressed the immediate food needs of low-income families
affected by the economic fallout of the pandemic. Among other things, the
Families First Coronavirus Response Act allowed states to provide extra SNAP benefits,
waive work requirements, and suspend certain administrative functions, such as
conducting recertification for benefits.
The Food and Nutrition Service (which administers SNAP) has authorized all states to provide emergency allotments to enrolled households through at least the end of September. According to the FNS this provision alone “represent[s] a 40% increase in overall monthly SNAP benefits, significantly increasing food purchasing power for American families.” The emergency allotments increased the total monthly amount the federal government issues to households from around $4.4 billion to almost $7 billion by April 2020. The average five-person household enrolled in SNAP prior to the pandemic received $528 per month. This is less than the $768 (which will increase to $801 on October 1 due to annual cost of living increases) maximum benefit because many SNAP recipients are able to cover a portion of their food costs with other household income. But under the Families First Act, all households received the maximum allotment, which amounted to an extra $240 per month for a household of five, on average.
Additionally, childless adults are typically required to seek work or participate in job training or an education program to receive SNAP benefits for longer than three months. This requirement increases the incentive for recipients to work, and it can help SNAP recipients gain critical job skills that will increase their earning potential through training and education programs. Because of skyrocketing unemployment rates amid the pandemic, the Families First Act rightfully waived this requirement for all states until the public health emergency declaration expires. This declaration is set to expire on October 23, 2020, but could be extended by the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.
These provisions, combined with increased
financial hardship for many families in the fallout of the pandemic, caused the
SNAP caseload to increase sharply in April. We still do not know with certainty
how many households are actually receiving SNAP because of data reporting
issues. But if these numbers are accurate, the SNAP caseload is already
approaching its peak levels after the Great Recession, in which the
unemployment rate remained above 9 percent for two years.
It is also important to note that, beyond the SNAP expansions outlined above, Congress authorized $1200 per adult in economic stimulus payments to virtually all US households and $600 in enhanced unemployment insurance benefits. Research shows these provisions offset losses in employment income for many US households and likely limited the incidence of more widespread food hardships.
Yet, despite such significant
economic relief, House Democrats are proposing even more. They want to:
- Increase the SNAP benefit by 15 percent, meaning that
a five-person household would receive a maximum of $883 per month instead of $768
($921 after October 1);
- Waive the work requirement for childless SNAP
participants through November 2021, regardless of the unemployment situation;
- Exclude enhanced unemployment benefits (which would
include a proposed $600 per week supplement) from income calculations when
determining SNAP eligibility.
Should these provisions pass, the number of US households receiving SNAP would substantially increase — at a cost of billions of dollars per month to taxpayers. These provisions, combined with generous unemployment benefits, would present many US households with large financial disincentives to return to work, making it financially beneficial for them to remain enrolled in government benefits rather than working.
Lawmakers should resist efforts to expand SNAP even more. Instead, they should continue existing provisions where they make sense, including the SNAP emergency allotments and waivers of work requirements while unemployment rates are still high. This will help to reassure the public that SNAP is helping those most in need, rather than replacing work with government assistance.