Most Americans have not heard of the Thrifty Food Plan, a tool used to establish maximum benefit levels for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as “food stamps.” But President BidenJoe BidenChina eyes military base on Africa's Atlantic coast: report Biden orders flags be flown at half-staff through Dec. 9 to honor Dole Biden heading to Kansas City to promote infrastructure package MORE has used a routine re-evaluation of the plan — traditionally a research exercise — to permanently add $20 billion a year to federal spending on food assistance, increasing benefit levels by one-quarter and subverting congressional authority in the process. The move will increase federal spending without a way to pay for it, discourage work among low-income Americans by increasing benefits, and likely result in many families eating more expensive and less nutritious food.
While updating the plan was mandated to occur every five years by the bipartisan 2018 Farm Bill, the Biden administration has broken a longstanding understanding that the effort should happen in a cost-neutral way. Congress has never used a re-evaluation of the Thrifty Food Plan to increase SNAP benefits, only authorizing the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to increase the cost of the plan in accordance with inflation. Just last month, the Congressional Budget Office acknowledged this precedent when it estimated only inflationary adjustments to the Plan through 2031. The move reflects a continued willingness by this administration to ignore precedent and unilaterally expand government programs without congressional input.
The more than 20 percent uptick in SNAP benefits has dramatic implications for the federal budget. Twenty years ago, the federal government spent $22 billion total on SNAP in today’s dollars. The trajectory of SNAP spending was already raising concerns before the pandemic when it reached $55 billion in 2019. Adding $20 billion or more per year to these costs without a way to pay for it is unsustainable in the long term.
Congress should be the arbiter of decisions around the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan — and therefore, SNAP benefits — because, while politically important, the plan remains scientifically uncertain and arbitrary. Take, for example, how USDA researchers developed the Thrifty Food Plan: They started by identifying an arbitrary “market basket” of food and beverages that supposedly reflects a healthy diet. They next quantified how much of each food people should eat. Finally, they attempted to estimate the costs of these diets for 15 different groups, according to age and gender.
One only needs to look at the details of the 2021 report to appreciate how, at each step of this exercise, decisions can vastly affect the outcomes, often to the tune of billions of dollars. For example, the USDA concludes that an adult male needs $59.65 for food each week, including 1.89 pounds of poultry for $4.69 and 0.76 pounds of other “meats” for $3.05 — making other meat the more expensive option. Substitute poultry for “meats,” and the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan decreases dramatically. Should substantial increases to the federal budget really come down to how much meat and poultry bureaucrats think SNAP participants should eat?
The potential effects of such a large benefit increase on employment also should raise concerns. The new maximum SNAP benefit for a family of four will be $835 per month, or $10,020 per year, for a nonworking household. Research shows that benefit-eligible households worked less after the introduction of the Food Stamp Program in the 1970s. Thus, it is reasonable to expect that increasing the SNAP benefit by such a large amount will make work less attractive to low-income households. Fewer working households will mean more SNAP participants in the end — a result that Congress should carefully consider.
Finally, Congress should reconsider the entire exercise because it unrealistically assumes that SNAP households follow the Thrifty Food Plan’s prescribed diet. According to the USDA, sweetened beverages, candy and prepared foods constitute 26.3 percent of actual SNAP food expenditures, while the new plan calls for only 8.5 percent of total food costs to be spent on these items. Giving SNAP participants more money without restrictions will more than likely increase the consumption of unhealthy items, worsening the problems of obesity and disease caused by poor diet.
The Biden administration might believe that larger government assistance programs merit undermining the legislative process. And they certainly have shown a willingness to increase government benefits without any ties to work or health outcomes. Only time will tell if their actions actually have helped or hurt Americans who really need assistance.