Strengthening SNAP is the most effective way to address the growing hunger crisis

Strengthening SNAP is the most effective way to address the growing hunger crisis
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Despite the escalating COVID-19-related hunger emergency facing millions of families, Congress has yet to adequately strengthen the nation’s first line of defense against hunger, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). SNAP, otherwise known as food stamps, is the most cost-effective way to combat hunger and has a proven track record of doing so. 

The latest House measure, the Heroes Act, would leverage SNAP to help the 33 million newly unemployed Americans to feed their families and provide an immediate boost to struggling local economies. As Congress takes up the next round of legislation, it should prioritize these SNAP provisions.

The numbers are in and they are stark. The U.S. economy is experiencing the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and more Americans than ever are filing for unemployment insurance. Meanwhile, millions of children have lost free and reduced-price school meals and more than one in three households with children are food insecure. Grocery prices are the highest in 50 years and food insecurity is the most common hardship among the newly unemployed. 

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Black and Hispanic adults are the most likely to lack access to a nutritionally adequate diet. These are the very communities experiencing higher rates of job loss, COVID-19 infections and mortality, as many work on the frontlines of the pandemic, suffer from underlying medical conditions and experience barriers to accessing health care. 

The charitable food system has done a remarkable job feeding millions of Americans under very challenging circumstances, yet it is vastly overburdened, with miles-long lines at food banks. In some states, the national guard has been called in to help distribute food. We need robust federal support to address this crisis head on. 

The solution is clear. Congress should expand SNAP, the nation’s most powerful tool for alleviating hunger and strengthening local economies. The Congressional Budget Office deems SNAP one of the most effective economic supports during a weak economy. SNAP provides nine times the number of meals served by food banks and pantries and a benefit increase can be implemented very quickly. 

SNAP participants quickly spend benefits and use freed up income on other needed resources. USDA itself finds that every $1 in federal SNAP spending generates at least $1.50 in economic activity.

The Heroes Act temporarily boosts the maximum SNAP benefit by 15 percent (an average of an additional $25 per month) to help the poorest households that have not yet seen a benefit increase, including 5 million children. It also increases the minimum benefit levels from $16 to $30 and suspends implementation of administrative rules that restrict SNAP for millions of people through onerous work requirements, income, asset and deduction standards. These provisions should last for the full length of the economic downturn.  

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The steps Congress has taken thus far are helpful but wholly insufficient, and this is no time for half-measures. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act relaxes administrative barriers and allows states to increase benefits for some SNAP participants, yet nearly half the families will not receive any benefit increase. Its successor, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act allocates funds for the rising number of applicants but does not expand eligibility or increase benefits. While Congress has yet to effectively strengthen the nation’s most powerful anti-hunger tool, USDA has spent extraordinary funds on new food security programs that lack the infrastructure to quickly and efficiently scale up.

No doubt these proposals will be a tough sell to an administration that has devoted its time to undermining the SNAP program. Through a series of regulations, the administration has put roughly 4 million people in danger of losing SNAP and nearly 1 million children in danger of losing subsidized school meals. One rule already implemented makes it easier for officials to reject immigration applications based upon receipt of public benefits. It has sowed fear and confusion in communities across the country, precluding roughly one in five immigrant families from signing up for or staying on public benefits, including SNAP. 

Just this week, USDA announced it would fight a court ruling that halts the misguided work requirement rule and would eliminate SNAP for 700,000 adults. These rules likely threaten an even greater number of Americans if implemented during this economic downturn.

Now is the time to strengthen this powerful program, not to undermine it. A SNAP benefit increase will help lift millions out of poverty, as it always has done. In the long term, caseloads will decline as the economy improves. During this period of record job loss and hunger, it should be a no-brainer. Boosting SNAP will allow millions of Americans to put food on the table, ease the unsustainable stress on the charitable food system, and provide an immediate stimulus to local economies. Politics offers few such win-win-wins, and Congress should not miss this one.

Maya Sandalow is a policy associate at CSPI and focuses on SNAP access and health equity. Maya holds a Master of Public Health from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a bachelor’s degree from Claremont McKenna College.