In the weeks since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, the United States has increasingly started implementing the actions necessary to limit the spread of disease. Those steps—social distancing, home isolation, and travel limitations—all necessitate an unprecedented change in American life and economic activity. This is not just a health emergency, but an economic one.
Low-income and other marginalized communities are among those who will be most severely affected by the upcoming economic downturn and public health crisis. America’s fragile safety net is already ill-equipped to help the millions of people in this country who experience poverty and deprivation. As businesses close and people lose sources of income and stability, Americans must be able to turn to government benefits such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to get by. In 2019, SNAP helped feed 38 million people across the country, and that number is likely to increase in the coming weeks and months, as a record-high 3.3 million people applied for unemployment benefits in just the last week alone.
SNAP is the country’s largest food assistance program, which is already designed to serve the poorest people in the country, as more than 90 percent of SNAP benefits reach households at or below the poverty line. Almost half of SNAP participants are children, and approximately 21 percent are elderly adults or people with disabilities. In addition, most workers who rely on SNAP benefits work in the service sector or other low-wage industries, the same industries expected to be severely affected by a recession caused by COVID-19. During the Great Recession, when both unemployment insurance and SNAP were crucial programs for households, those most likely to rely on SNAP benefits alone were also the “least well-off [and] most vulnerable.” For this reason, it is vital that any legislation meant to protect people during the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting recession includes substantial funding and improvements for SNAP.
The recently passed Families First Coronavirus Response Act begins to answer this need, allocating $1.2 billion to food security programs. State and local governments are also acting, requesting waivers to forgo in-person interviews for SNAP benefits and requirements for school meals to be held in group settings, among other changes to limit community spread. But while the Senate-led third stimulus package, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, includes incredibly important provisions to help workers—such as expanded unemployment insurance and direct checks for individuals—it does not do enough to ensure food security, which means it does not do enough to help the people who need it most.
As lawmakers move quickly to limit the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic, any future legislation must include considerable support for SNAP. The following three recommendations highlight just a few of the improvements that can be made to ensure that low-income people do not go hungry.
1. Increase and expand SNAP benefits
Many advocates have long acknowledged a basic truth: Current SNAP benefits are not enough. The average amount is $1.40 per person per meal, and almost half of all families use up all or nearly all their benefits in the first weeks of a normal month. For families already struggling to stretch their budgets, it is nearly impossible to follow advice to stock up on supplies in response to a public health emergency. And as more and more households apply for food assistance in order to get by, they will quickly realize that these benefits are not enough to make ends meet.
The Families First Coronavirus Response Act includes emergency supplemental benefits for SNAP households, but future legislation must also include a longer-term, overall increase of benefits. In 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act increased the maximum SNAP benefit by 13.6 percent—which is now seen as one of the most effective investments the country made during this period. At the height of the Great Recession, every dollar increase in SNAP benefit generated $1.74 in economic activity. With another recession looming, Congress must make a similar investment, increasing maximum benefits by at least 15 percent to both stimulate the economy and keep people from going hungry.
Currently, there are limitations to what products can be bought with SNAP benefits on an electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) should consider waiving those restrictions, allowing participants to buy hot foods, hygiene items, and cleaning products. This could both put more money into businesses that are struggling and allow for SNAP to function similarly to cash in that recipients would be able to buy the products necessary to stay safe during the pandemic. Already, states such as Louisiana and Texas are asking for USDA permission to allow recipients to spend their benefits on meals at restaurants; the department should proactively waive restrictions so that these changes can be made quickly, in a manner consistent with public health guidance on social distancing and with minimal effort from already overburdened states.
Congress should also consider using the current SNAP benefit infrastructure of EBT cards as an avenue for targeted, direct payments to low-income families. For many families struggling right now, a one-time direct payment that could take weeks or months to arrive would fail to provide desperately needed immediate relief. While those households wait—and even after that check is spent—monthly emergency payments would ensure that families with already demonstrated need get the money necessary to pay for major expenses as quickly and efficiently as possible.
There are some other important changes that could help to expand who qualifies for SNAP and how benefits can be used. For example, states who still have asset tests should eliminate them so that people are not penalized for having savings during this emergency. A pilot program allowing SNAP benefits to be used online should also be expanded so that families can pay for their groceries while still practicing social distancing. Other administrative hurdles, including application and recertification interviews, should continue to be waived so that caseworkers and recipients can follow best practices for limiting the spread of disease. And lastly, Congress must allocate additional funding for states to handle increasing caseloads and administrative burdens from implementing these necessary changes.
2. Make long-term structural changes
As even more people lose jobs and stability as a consequence of necessary public health actions, they must be able to turn to a comprehensive, compassionate social safety net that includes direct cash assistance, expanded unemployment insurance, and food assistance programs, such as SNAP, that are ready to meet increasing need. Now is the time for lawmakers to make SNAP a program that works as intended—to alleviate hunger and poverty—not just with temporary fixes, but long-term structural improvements.
Many of the suggestions for strengthening SNAP in this particular crisis align with suggestions that experts have been making for years to ensure that the U.S. government can meaningfully serve the most vulnerable. SNAP benefits are—and have always been—too low, even before the current public health emergency. One way to fix this is to, at a minimum, change the calculation for benefits to the USDA’s low-cost meal plan so that the benefits range is more accurately aligned with household needs, whereas the current Thrifty Food Plan measures the most frugal budget for a nutritionally adequate diet. Eliminating asset tests and work requirements even beyond the duration of this public health emergency would also help to ensure that the program is reaching those who need it most.
3. Stop regulatory attacks
Though Congress is now racing to pass emergency fixes, the Trump administration has spent the past few years weakening SNAP and limiting its ability to respond to a crisis such as this. In December 2019, the USDA finalized a rule that will make it more difficult for states to extend benefits beyond three months for certain adults, imposing even more stringent work requirements and kicking nearly 700,000 people off the program. The rule also significantly decreases SNAP’s ability to respond to recessions, despite the program’s proven efficiency in times of economic volatility. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, this rule was widely panned by advocates for being cruel and unnecessary.
The rule was scheduled to go into effect on April 1, but a judge recently blocked it from moving forward, citing both broader issues and the pandemic. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act also suspends the rule for the duration of a public health emergency declaration. This is a good start, but it’s not enough. It is vital that states are able to easily waive work requirements as entire industries shut down to contain the virus; the economic ramifications are likely to persist even beyond an official emergency declaration, and so must the suspension of harmful rules.
Another proposed USDA rule from last year would have cut SNAP by $9 billion over five years, hindered state streamlining of benefits, and caused almost 1 million children to lose automatic access to free school meals. If the rule had been finalized, there would have been nearly 1 million fewer children considered for important emergency aid when their schools closed.
Recent legislation introduced in the House prevents any funding from being used to implement regulatory changes, including another cut based on standard utility allowances. It is important that any new legislation that passes includes those provisions. Regulations that were cruel at the height of President Donald Trump’s so-called great economy are now even more inhumane amid the coronavirus crisis.
During an unprecedented pandemic and a rapidly approaching economic recession, lawmakers must prioritize directing assistance to individuals and strengthening programs such as SNAP to ensure that no one goes hungry. There are a number of emergency measures that must be taken as quickly as possible, but ultimately, the improvements that are made to SNAP cannot be temporary. Even when a public health emergency declaration is lifted, the consequences of an economic downturn will linger long after. Congress must strengthen SNAP so that it is ready to help as many people as necessary, in times of national crisis and beyond.
Areeba Haider is a research assistant for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress.
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