Thousands of Americans will face food insecurity, unless we act now

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The economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has yet to touch its critical mass, and yet, 21 million people have already lost their jobs. In Hawaii, Michigan and Rhode Island, one in five workers have lost employment.

Although some families may be able to deal with the financial damage caused by the pandemic, others will face extreme hardship. This includes families of color and single-parent households who may be thrust into poverty until the economy recovers from this public health crisis.

For many families, putting food on the table consistently has already become a pressing concern. Last week, 10,000 cars waited in line outside the San Antonio Food Bank of Texas, many of them first-timers. Eric Cooper, the CEO, shared, “I panicked. I’ve never seen a line that long.” 

The largest public program to increase access to food for low-income families is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly referred to as “food stamps”. 

SNAP provides recipients with modest allowances to purchase food every month. In the fiscal year 2020, an average family of four receives $465 under SNAP or $1.25 per person per meal. To qualify in most states, your gross household income must be below 130 percent of the federal poverty limit. That’s $33,480 for a family of four. 

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, Congress passed The Families First Coronavirus Response Act and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Despite the many benefits of these laws, they fall short of effectively addressing the threat of food insecurity. 

As congressional leaders return to Washington this week, they should:

1. Increase SNAP’s maximum monthly benefits by 15 percent.

2. Standardize the state eligibility criteria for SNAP to include all households making below 200 percent of the poverty line. 

These two changes will dramatically improve the lives of millions of Americans by reducing poverty and making it easier to put food on the table. History provides us with bountiful evidence. 

Increasing SNAP benefits is one of the fastest and most effective forms of economic stimulus, generating $1.70 of economic activity for every $1.00 spent, according to Moody Analytics. In response to the Great Recession, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act increased SNAP’s maximum monthly benefit by nearly 14 percent or an additional $80 per month for a family of four.

This provided needy families with additional funding for food immediately and simultaneously stimulated the economy as the money was spent rapidly. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), SNAP kept 7.3 million Americans out of poverty, and nearly half were children. 

When it comes to SNAP eligibility, states have three options: Traditional, Narrow, and Broad-based. Most states have chosen the broad-based option, allowing them to provide benefits to most low-income households. Yet, only 16 of the 40 states have chosen to opt-in and extend SNAP benefits to households making at or below 200 percent of the poverty line. 

Recently, the Administration proposed a rule to eliminate broad-based eligibility through Executive Action. However, there are numerous benefits to keeping this eligibility intact. It allows low-income households to save for the future, simplifies SNAP administration, and eliminates a “benefits cliff” for working families as their earnings rise. As families are suffering to respond to the pandemic, Congress should standardize SNAP eligibility criteria to 200 percent of the federal poverty line for all states. 

To be sure, opponents will argue this is a government handout, that it is unfair to other families, and that there are better ways to improve the social safety net. However, the numbers do not lie: SNAP saves millions from poverty every year and is one of the most cost-effective ways to boost growth and jobs, particularly during a weak economy. 

COVID-19 has devastated our country in more ways than one. Our health care system has been pushed to its limits. With over 720,000 cases and 37,000 deaths, many families have been affected by these tragedies.

Even worse, we are now starting to face consequences related to unemployment and poverty. Preventing people from going hungry should be the bare minimum as we begin to rebuild our lives. Increasing SNAP benefits and eligibility is the most reliable way to support our citizens. But if we wait until the pandemic is over, it will be too late, as thousands will have already experienced food insecurity. The time to act is now. 

Jacquelyn Corley, M.D. is a neurosurgery resident physician at Duke University Hospital and senior research fellow at the Harvard Program in Global Surgery and Social Change. Follow her on Twitter: @JacquelynCorley. Hussain Lalani, M.D. M.P.H. is an Internal Medicine resident physician in Dallas, Texas. Follow him on Twitter: @DrHussainL.

Tags Economics Federal assistance in the United States Food security in the United States Poverty Poverty threshold Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Welfare

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