In October 2021, millions of people who use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) will see an increase to the benefits that help them feed themselves and their families. This change was made possible by a seemingly obscure process: the reevaluation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Thrifty Food Plan.
The Thrifty Food Plan (TFP) is the most frugal of the four plans that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) develops to estimate the costs and contents of a healthy diet, and it has special policy importance as the basis for determining the maximum amount of SNAP benefits available to families. For years, SNAP recipients, anti-hunger advocates, and academic experts have argued that the TFP underestimates the cost of a nutritionally adequate diet. To address these concerns, Congress directed the USDA to regularly reevaluate the TFP using recent dietary guidance and current food prices, among other factors, in the 2018 bipartisan Farm Bill.
In August 2021, the Biden administration’s USDA revealed the results of the reevaluation and cost update to the TFP, as well as its impact on the SNAP program. According to the agency, SNAP benefits will increase by about 25 percent—an average of $36.24 per person each month, or $1.19 per day. Although relatively modest, this represents the single largest permanent increase in SNAP benefits in the program’s history.
Here are five things to know about the update:
1. The modernization of the Thrifty Food Plan is long overdue.
As American grocery habits, food bills, and nutrition guidelines have transformed, the TFP has stayed the same: Its last revision was in 2006, and the estimate has only been adjusted for inflation since its inception in 1975.
The TFP has long been known to rely on unrealistic assumptions that undermine the true cost of a nutritious, practical diet. For example, the TFP has not historically considered the time or equipment required to cook when determining the set of foods included in the benefit. It does not meet federal nutrition guidelines or reflect what households actually eat; and it fails to account for current economic realities or costs of living, as well as the costs of specific cultural foods or special dietary needs. Moreover, the national legacy of systemic racism—including redlining and other practices that have created disparities in access to food and transportation—means that these harmful assumptions can have a disproportionate impact on low-income people of color.
The 2021 reevaluation begins to correct some of TFP’s unrealistic assumptions. Perhaps most importantly, the “cost constraint” no longer applies. Rather than shaping food plans for a healthy diet within the already limited cost of the TFP, the USDA determined what foods and beverages would be included and then calculated a newly estimated cost. The result is a long-overdue increase to TFP and SNAP purchasing power that better reflects families’ lived experiences and dietary needs.
2. The increase will have a direct impact on the 40 million-plus individuals who use SNAP
Though SNAP is a crucial anti-poverty and anti-hunger program, advocates have long recognized a basic truth: Current SNAP benefits are too low. At an average of $1.40 per person per meal, households across the country are left struggling to meet their most basic needs. Indeed, almost half of all families use up all or nearly all their benefits in the first weeks of a normal month. In addition, a recent USDA study found that 90 percent of families reported barriers to a healthy diet throughout the month, and more than half cited affordability as a major concern.
With the update to the TFP and resulting bump to SNAP benefits, all eligible recipients will now have additional funds and the accompanying flexibility in their budgets.
3. An increase to SNAP benefits will also help to reduce poverty, alleviate hunger, improve well-being, and strengthen the overall economy
More than 90 percent of SNAP benefits reach households at or below the federal poverty level. Even at its current inadequate amounts, SNAP is credited with lifting millions of people above the federal poverty line each year. Yet by better aligning SNAP benefit amounts to people’s lived realities, policymakers can help strengthen this anti-poverty impact.
Due to America’s long history of structural racism—including factors such as racial wage gaps, occupational segregation, and a lack of adequate safety nets—Black, Native American, and Latino households are more likely than white households to experience food insecurity and poverty. This, in turn, means these groups are also disproportionately affected by low SNAP benefits.
Research clearly demonstrates that increases to SNAP benefits are associated with decreases in food insecurity and improvements to overall well-being. For children in particular, access to adequate SNAP benefits is tied to a lower risk of nutritional deficiencies and health conditions, as well as higher educational attainment and labor market outcomes.
And finally, increasing SNAP benefits strengthens the program as a source of economic stimulus: Every $1 invested in SNAP during a downturn generates up to $1.80 of economic activity.
4. The TFP update is separate from changes to SNAP benefits made in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting recession
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, legislators recognized SNAP as an important avenue for supporting families and took action to increase benefit amounts for recipients. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act of March 2020 authorized “emergency allotments” for SNAP households. As implemented by the Trump administration in 2020 upon state requests, these allotments could be approved by the USDA to bring all SNAP households up to the maximum benefit level for their household size. Effective April 2021, the Biden administration also allowed states to provide emergency allotments to SNAP households that had already been at the maximum benefit—a policy that helped to capture more than 12 million people previously excluded from the allotments. In addition, the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021 authorized an additional 15 percent increase in SNAP benefits; this increase was extended by the American Rescue Plan in March 2021.
Importantly, however, both of these increases are temporary. The 15 percent increase is scheduled to expire on September 30, and the emergency allotments are dependent on the presence of state- and national-level public health emergency declarations. Without action, the pandemic-related increases will expire, leaving recipients to face a daunting loss of benefits.
The SNAP benefit increase related to the reevaluation of the TFP, on the other hand, is not subject to those expirations, nor is it directly a consequence of the pandemic and recession. In October, SNAP recipients can expect to experience the historic 25 percent average increase to their pre-pandemic benefits just when the temporary 15 percent increase expires, avoiding a loss of vital benefits at that time.
5. The TFP reevaluation is just one of many steps needed to improve SNAP and end hunger in America
While historic, the increase to SNAP benefits amounts to only 40 additional cents per meal for recipients. Congress must extend pandemic-related expansions and prioritize necessary permanent improvements to expand SNAP’s reach and impact. For example, lawmakers can choose to use a more generous USDA food plan—such as the Low-Cost Food Plan—as the basis for SNAP benefits to improve adequacy. They can also address eligibility requirements, purchasing restrictions, asset limits, and work requirements to make accessing the program easier for those it’s intended to serve.
And ultimately, SNAP program improvements must be paired with other policy choices—such as permanently expanding the child tax credit (CTC) to provide parents with additional income supports—to address the many systemic causes of hunger, financial instability, and poverty.
The long-awaited, science-driven update to the TFP will yield immediate benefits for the more than 40 million people who use SNAP to feed their families. Moreover, it’s an important step to improving food assistance and, ultimately, building a more compassionate, comprehensive social safety net.
Areeba Haider is a research associate for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress.
The author would like to thank Ellen Vollinger of the Food and Research Action Center for her thoughtful review.