WASHINGTON — The Biden administration has revised the nutrition standards of the food stamp program and prompted the largest permanent increase to benefits in the program’s history, a move that will give poor people more power to fill their grocery carts but add billions of dollars to the cost of a program that feeds 1 in 8 Americans.
Under rules to be announced Monday and put in place in October, average benefits will rise more than 25% from pre-pandemic levels. All 42 million people in the program will receive additional aid. The move does not require congressional approval, and unlike the large pandemic-era expansions, which are starting to expire, the changes are intended to last.
For at least a decade, critics of the benefits have said they were too low to provide an adequate diet. More than three-quarters of households exhaust their benefits in the first half of the monthly cycle, and researchers have linked subsequent food shortages to problems as diverse as increased hospital admissions, more school suspensions and lower SAT scores.
Under the new rules, average monthly benefits, $121 per person before the pandemic, will rise by $36. Although the increase may seem modest to middle-class families, proponents say it will reduce hunger, improve nutrition and lead to better health.
In an interview last week, the agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, simultaneously described the work as a technical exercise in nutrition science and a reflection of the forces reshaping the politics of the safety net. In the middle of disease, hardship and racial disparities, he said, the $79 billion annual cost of the program helps “stabilize our democracy.”
“We may have a Constitution and a Declaration of Independence, but if we had 42 million Americans who were going hungry, really hungry, they wouldn’t be happy, and there would be political instability,” Vilsack said.
Coinciding with a large new child tax credit — which temporarily offers families with children an income guarantee — the growth in food aid comes as part of an enormous pandemic-era expansion of government assistance. Critics say that the costs are unsustainable and that the aid erodes Americans’ willingness to work. The new plan will raise the program’s costs by about $20 billion a year from pre-pandemic levels.
In technical terms, the Agriculture Department has revised the Thrifty Food Plan, a list of two dozen food groups the government uses to estimate the cost of an economical, nutritious diet. Its value was first set in 1962 and, other than being adjusted for inflation, had not grown since then, despite a revolution in what Americans eat.
The changes are the result of a law passed in 2018 by a Republican Congress, which ordered a review of the program’s assumptions and gave the Agriculture Department four years to do it. In January, President Joe Biden urged the department to speed up the process so that benefits “reflect the true cost of a basic healthy diet.”
In allowing the plan’s value to rise, officials argued they were following the 2018 law, which required new standards but did not specify whether costs should stay the same. “A majority of Republicans in the Senate and House voted for this,” Vilsack said. “They deserve credit.”
But as hints of the benefit increase spread last week, Republicans pushed back. Former Rep. Mike Conaway, a Republican and chief author of the 2018 law, said it was written “assuming the precedent of cost-neutrality would be followed” and warned the administration against “unilateral overreach.” Before the plan was even released, two Republican legislators called for a watchdog to review it.
Opponents of a benefit increase say the program is meant to supply only part, not all, of a household’s diet, as suggested by its formal name: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. They also say the aid would last longer if the needy spent it better, citing research showing nearly 10% goes to sweetened drinks.
“The data on the inadequacy of the Thrifty Food Plan is pretty weak,” said Angela Rachidi of the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
Soaking Dried Beans
To glimpse the limits of a SNAP budget, consider the challenges of Betsy Cruz, a single mother in rural Gilbert, South Carolina, who is new to poverty. Cruz, 58, spent nearly three decades as a government meat inspector, living a middle-class life until the worsening health of a disabled son forced her to quit and care for him. With penalties for early retirement, her income fell by three-quarters.
After enrolling in SNAP two years ago, Cruz was pleased to receive $350 a month, which seemed ample until she went to the grocery store. “Within two weeks it was gone,” she said. “I never had to worry about it before. We always had food.”
Now a chronic fear of running out compounds her worries, and a poor diet aggravates her son’s struggles with autism and Klinefelter syndrome, a genetic disorder that leads to violent outbursts. At 18, he weighs 300 pounds and has diabetes, but Cruz said a SNAP budget had pushed her toward cheap, filling foods like pasta that cause his blood sugar to rise.
Although a nonprofit group now delivers inexpensive produce she can buy with SNAP, she said, “there are days when I just don’t know how I’m going to feed my son.”
SNAP has long played a central role in the safety net, and its importance has grown in the decades since tough welfare rules restricted cash aid. From the early 2000s to the aftermath of the Great Recession, enrollment more than doubled. Beneficiaries are a cross section of Americans in need, including older adults, disabled people, the working poor and long-term welfare recipients. About 43% are children.
Benefits are awarded on a sliding scale. The new maximum will rise to $835 a month for a family of four, an increase of 21%. (The average benefit will rise 27% from pre-pandemic levels, adjusted for inflation.)
The debate over benefit adequacy turns on colliding assumptions: SNAP bills itself as supplemental, but more than one-third of households receive the maximum benefit. Caseworkers have found that those households have no cash for food, so for them, aid is not supplemental.
First issued in 1975 at costs set in 1962, the Thrifty Food Plan specifies a group of foods by quantity that provides a suitable diet. Periodic updates were meant to reflect changing habits and dietary guidance. But with costs fixed, they became less attempts to estimate budgets than efforts to show it was theoretically possible to eat at the predetermined level.
The last revision, in 2006, assumed an adult woman would spend $18.58 a month on low-fat milk and fewer than 50 cents on cheese, according to an analysis by Parke Wilde of Tufts University.
Critics say multiple features of the department’s model drove such unrealistic results. The model ignored preparation time — assuming that SNAP users would buy dried beans and soak them before cooking them, which takes hours but is cheaper than buying them in cans. (Few did.)
The model also ignored geographic differences in prices. It based costs on a hypothetical family with children younger than 12, not hungrier teenagers. And it drew on spending data limited to the poor, rather than looking at what a broader group of budget-conscious Americans spent. That created a “circular logic — estimating the cost of an adequate diet with data from people who cannot afford one,” said James P. Ziliak, an economist at the University of Kentucky.
Elaine Waxman of the Urban Institute, along with two colleagues, recently found that the maximum aid could not buy a modest diet in 96% of U.S. counties. The department’s update found “no feasible solutions” in the previous cost constraints for an adequate diet.
In producing the new plan, officials used a broader price index than the one that had relied only on the poor. They allotted SNAP users 7% more calories, based on weight gains and new exercise recommendations. And they incorporated new dietary standards, adding more seafood, such as canned tuna, and more red and orange vegetables.
They also factored in time: The plan assumes that SNAP families will get 99% of their beans from a can. Among the other convenience foods it includes are hard-boiled eggs, prepared salsa, baby carrots, boxed macaroni and cheese and bagged salad greens.
“It was a scientific, analytical process,” said Stacy Dean, a senior Agriculture Department official who oversees the program. “It wasn’t about approving a benefit increase.”
Fear of Running Out
SNAP users said the old budget imposed multiple strains, particularly the fear of running out of food. “You have to have extra brain space” to manage the anxiety, said Sheena Giles, an insurance agent in Columbia, South Carolina, with four children.
Many also said it led to unhealthy eating. Cynthia Williams, 67, a retiree in Las Vegas, said she often turned to high-sodium canned goods that were bad for her diabetes. “I make do with what I can get,” she said.
Dr. Hilary Seligman, who studies nutritional aid at the University of California, San Francisco, said a SNAP increase would significantly improve health. “This may be the most important change in the half-century history of the modern program,” she said.
But others note that nothing guarantees the needy will buy healthy food. Rachidi of the American Enterprise Institute said “to the extent that SNAP contributes to poor diet,” an increase could even harm poor people’s health.
Anticipating the benefit increase last week, Republicans on Capitol Hill warned of a power grab. During the pandemic, Congress approved extraordinary, if temporary, SNAP increases, with average benefits doubling. Since those increases are now starting to expire, some Republicans see the updated plan as a backdoor effort to sustain a major welfare expansion.
Among those eager for more food aid is Daniel Worthey, 37, a former convict and drug user who helps run a church-based recovery program in Little Rock, Arkansas, where his duties include helping clients get SNAP. Worthey, who earns about $14,000 a year, recently secured custody of his 10-year-old daughter, Avery, and decided he needed SNAP himself. His benefit is $130 a month.
“I was shocked at how little it was,” he said. (Arkansas was among the first states to drop the pandemic increases.)
In planning his new life as a father, Worthey saw shared meals as part of building a relationship with Avery. “I want her to grow up in a family setting, to sit down every night at the table,” he said. They make a weekly plan — Taco Tuesday, Pasta Wednesday — “to feel like we’re a team.”
But on their first trip to the grocery store, he had to drop pricey items from their list. “She wanted watermelon, cantaloupe, strawberries,” he said. He went to a food bank the next day, self-conscious about arriving as a client rather than a caseworker.
After a talk in which he freely discussed his onetime use of methamphetamine, Worthey suddenly seemed embarrassed to acknowledge his need for donated food.
“It’s a humbling experience,” he said. “I guess there’s nothing wrong with being humbled. But I would prefer to be able to afford this on my own.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.