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E218: SNAP benefits still not enough for many families

Hosted by: Norbert Wilson (Duke)
October 19, 2023

With record-breaking food prices in 2022, it has become more expensive for families to buy the foods that they need. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, helps families purchase foods but families frequently spend their benefits before the next benefit cycle. USDA modifies SNAP benefits every year as a cost-of-living adjustment. But was the change in fiscal year 2023 enough to keep pace with food price inflation? Today, we talk with Elaine Waxman from the Urban Institute to find out.

Elaine Waxman is a senior fellow in the Income and Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute.  Her expertise includes food insecurity, food access, federal nutrition programs, social determinants of health and broader issues affecting families with low income. Waxman previously served as the Vice President of Research and Nutrition at Feeding America. She has co-authored numerous publications, including an article on SNAP benefit adequacy in the Agricultural and Resource Economics Review, which was named the journal’s Best Paper in 2019. She received her MPP and PhD from the University of Chicago, where she is a lecturer at the Crown School of Social Work, Policy and Practice.

Interview Summary

You recently completed an analysis on the gap between SNAP benefits and the real cost of a meal. Can you tell us what you found?

Absolutely. I think it helps to start with the fact that for many households, SNAP is a supplement to their budget that they would spend on food. But for about four in 10 households, it is their food budget. In other words, they’re deemed to have zero income available to purchase food. What we’ve done is look at how adequate is the benefit for those households, the ones that receive the maximum benefit. Given overall questions about SNAP adequacy, but because there’s such wide variation in geographic food prices, something that I think we all know intuitively based on our everyday lives but don’t realize that, in fact in the lower 48 states, SNAP is not adjusted for any of those differences in food prices. It doesn’t matter if you live in rural Texas or rural Idaho or on the Coast, your benefit is the same if you’re receiving that maximum benefit. What we find is that particularly, based on those experiences in 2022 that we all felt when we showed up at the cash register, 99% of counties in the US had cost for what we would call a moderately priced meal that exceeded the maximum SNAP benefit when we think about that on a per-meal basis. So that was very concerning obviously because people have been relying very heavily on SNAP throughout the pandemic. For a period, there were extra benefits, what is known as emergency allotments, but those have gone away now. As you mentioned at the start, we do get a yearly cost of living adjustment and it was pretty big last year compared to most years and it did help, but the maximum SNAP benefit did not cover the cost of a meal in 78% of count. So that’s an improvement from 99% to 78%. But clearly, in the majority of the US, we’re still not really able to fully tap the value of SNAP. And since SNAP is a big part of our strategy for reducing food insecurity, that’s something we should all be concerned about.

I think this is really important for listeners to understand. There aren’t regional adjustments in the SNAP benefits and there are huge price differences depending on where you are in the US. I know some work out of the Economic Research Service of USDA found that same finding in some earlier years. And so it’s really important to see what happens, especially during an inflationary period. Thank you for sharing that. I want to talk about one way that we understand how SNAP benefits are set. And so, USDA updated the Thrifty Food Plan which is the basis of SNAP benefits or at least the maximum benefit level in 2021, and it was the first time since the mid two-2000s. What did that mean for the adequacy of SNAP benefits? And what do we know about how inflation has further affected SNAP benefits?

Yes, great question. It was a very important move on the part of USDA to implement that update to the Thrifty Food Plan, which basically is the market basket of assumptions about food purchasing that USDA relies on to set all SNAP benefits. So it’s a critical piece of information. Even though it might sound like inside baseball, to some people, the Thrifty Food Plan really matters. As you noted, it had not been updated since I think 2006. And we all know that not only have prices changed a lot, but the ways in which we acquire food has changed a lot. We buy a lot more prepared foods even to eat at home. A lot more people are working and so the assumption that you can cook everything from scratch doesn’t really hold for a lot of households anymore. a number of those assumptions were updated. And for a period, that made a big improvement in that SNAP maximum benefit that we just talked about. Unfortunately, that was eroded by the pretty unprecedented rise in food prices throughout 2022, which of course, partly relates to supply chain issues that emerged during the pandemic. The Ukraine war has certainly had a significant impact on food supply chains. The upshot was we had food price increases that we hadn’t seen since the early 1970s. So that’s where we were this time last year in terms of the maximum benefit, even with those improvements back to not covering the vast majority of counties in terms of cost adequacy. That cost-of-living adjustment helps somewhat, but I think the lesson we should take from this is that we have an underlying adequacy problem with the Thrifty Food Plan. It’s really a bare bones assumption set, and a lot of folks have advocated that we move away from that to something that’s called the low-cost food plan. It’s a little bit more generous. It’s a sort of bare bones basic shopping, but the Thrifty Food Plan may just not be the right template anymore. And if we want to tackle the persistent issue of food insecurity in this country, we’ve got to deal with this underlying SNAP adequacy issue.

I think this is really an important issue. I want to push a little bit further on the Thrifty Food Plan itself in terms of what it means. Please correct me if I get it wrong. It’s this idea of a least-cost diet that is nutritionally adequate. It’s looking at the dietary guidelines to help provide constraints to make sure people are eating a nutritious meal and it’s also based off a minimum cost expenditure for what that diet would look like. It’s based off a family of two adults and two children, and it doesn’t incorporate lots of different family structures. Is that a fair assessment? And are there then some concerns about what the Thrifty Food Plan is?

I think what you’re suggesting is basically correct and one of the issues about the Thrifty Food Plan is that when it was first developed, it really wasn’t envisioned as a sustainable diet. It was really more of an emergency sort of meal plan. Like you’re very strapped for resources, you can provide minimal nutrition for your household. But this is not what we want for people on an ongoing basis. One of the problems about the assumptions in the Thrifty Food Plan has also been that when we think about a household of two adults and two children, well, children eat really differently depending on their age, right? A five-year old doesn’t eat anything like a 15-year-old. There are a lot of issues around household composition, but also just what do we mean when we say we want nutrition security for people, right? We want people to be able to eat healthfully in a sustaining way and I really think our ongoing look at SNAP adequacy suggests we’re not there. We’re not leveraging the tools we need to tackle not only food insecurity, but the fact that we have an epidemic of chronic diet-sensitive disease in this country.

Thank you for that. You know, this raises important questions about policy frame and the policy space around food access and food security. The Farm Bill is usually the legislative vehicle for making major changes to SNAP. But this past spring, the debt ceiling debate negotiations resulted in adjustments in the SNAP work requirements for some groups and new exemptions for others. What changes were made? And more broadly, what does research tell us about the impact of work requirements and time limits?

It’s been an interesting year, to say the least, for the progress of the Farm Bill. Just to remind everybody, the Farm Bill is that place that we normally make major changes and reauthorize significant federal nutrition programs like SNAP roughly every five years. This year, the debt ceiling negotiations sort of preempted a lot of the ongoing discussion in preparing for the Farm Bill, because it took up this issue of time limits specifically focused on benefits for what we call individuals who are able-bodied adults without dependents. Sometimes, you’ll hear the term ABAWD. I prefer not to use it because people are not the policy, but it’s really focused on single adults who don’t have custodial children. The idea is that if you are not able to meet a minimum work requirement of 80 hours a month or equivalent activities, you are limited to three months of benefits in a 36-month period. So that’s extremely draconian, especially when we think about what we all know about the instability of low-wage work, right? And in periods where we have widespread unemployment, like we did for a bit in the pandemic, we have the ability to waive those requirements for everyone but they are now coming back. In addition to them coming back, they are now being increased in terms of the number of people it will cover based on the debt ceiling deal. It used to be folks 18 to 49. It will phase in now for people up to age 55, which is also an interesting thing. Because as people age, they sometimes have less ability to be flexible in the workplace and to move into new positions. There’s a whole another conversation we could have about that. I guess a bright side of the debt ceiling bill was that it also created some new exemptions for those requirements, and they were focused on very specific groups including veterans, people who are unhoused, and young adults moving out of foster care. So those are all groups that we know are particularly vulnerable when it comes to just monthly finances and their ability to engage in the workplace. And that’s a good thing but it doesn’t mean that there aren’t lots of other folks out there who have other significant challenges that ought to be recognized. And because it’s a very sort of discretionary kind of process, we don’t even have confidence that everyone in those groups we just talked about would actually receive a waiver. So why does all this matter? It matters because there’s quite a body of research now that suggests that these time limits and work requirements don’t do what they set out to do, which is to meaningfully increase either work effort or household income. They don’t really accomplish the stated goal. They also cost money because you have to administer them and have a lot more interaction with the clients. And not only then do they not achieve those work goals, but they actually push a lot of people off of SNAP and/or trim them through, as we call people who move in and out because of administrative problems. What we have is a group who already has higher than typical food insecurity rates. We’re making it more difficult for them to engage in SNAP. And SNAP is our number one tool for reducing food insecurity from the federal program portfolio. On balance, I think a lot of folks in the food security space would argue that time limits should just go away, right? That’s not where we should be putting our investment if we want people to have more self-sufficiency and if we want them to eat better.

I really do appreciate the way you are humanizing the experiences of individuals who may depend on SNAP, but as the new policies are being implemented, may age out in a strange way. This is really a useful way for us to understand the implications of when we make decisions or changes to policy, it can have really negative consequences and may not achieve the goals that are at least stated. This is an important part of this conversation. But we’re looking at a federal shutdown and if an agreement isn’t reached, we could see some serious implications for families. Some lawmakers are calling for across the board cuts of most discretionary spending programs as part of any agreement. Would those cuts affect federal nutrition programs?

Good question, so the short answer is it’s just going to be generally disruptive across the board, but the type of program does matter. So SNAP is what we call an entitlement which means that anybody who is eligible for it will receive those benefits on an ongoing basis. But another very important program that many people are familiar with is called WIC and that is a program focused on prenatal care and postpartum care for moms and infants and children up to the age of five. WIC reaches millions of children across the country, and it is not an entitlement program, which means that it’s subject to an annual budget. We already have a problem with the WIC budget this year because we’ve had bigger increases in enrollment than were expected. I think that speaks to this issue about the continuing pressure of food prices, the loss of other pandemic supports at a time when families are still struggling to navigate basic needs. We’ve had more pressure on the WIC program and there was already concern that there would not be sufficient funds, let alone going into a shutdown situation. The administration has estimated that there will be a significant impact on families who will not be able to receive WIC if the shutdown were to persist. And then the bigger issue is that the time that we invest, so to speak, in shutdowns is time we’re not working on the Farm Bill and having a thorough reassessment of program needs. It’s likely to delay the Farm Bill agreements as well. While shutdowns, you know, are obviously very much about politics for people who have to put food on the table every week, some of which are paid for by federal salaries, right? Then this is a very real economic shock and it’s unfortunately an economic shock that we could avoid.

Yes, it is important to think about how we can avoid this and reframing this as an issue about politics. But at the end of the day, there are families who are dependent on these policies, and we just had a conversation with Travis Smith at the University of Georgia about what happens when kids roll off WIC and that sort of in-between time before they enter school and that had this negative effect on the nutritional quality that these children consumed. And you can imagine that if there are disruptions in WIC while it’s a smaller program than SNAP, it has important implications for the wellbeing of the families that use it. This is an important time and I’m hopeful that we will move past this impasse. Discussions about how to strengthen healthy eating for the US population are ever present. And this is particularly true for those individuals who participate in the SNAP program. What proposals are being considered for SNAP and how could we see any of those in the Farm Bill?

This is a really important topic because we actually have an evidence-based strategy for increasing the ability to purchase healthier foods like fresh fruits and vegetables and that is what they call nutrition incentives. Some people will know it as Double Up Bucks, but basically, they’re programs that allow people to receive additional money for SNAP if it’s put towards those kinds of purchases. That’s something that’s been evaluated over the last several years and seems to do exactly what we want, which is to increase those purchases. Unfortunately, it’s a grant program. It’s not an integral part of SNAP. It very much depends on where you live and what year it is as to whether you can access that kind of program. We’re underutilizing a tool that’s already there and the Farm Bill does currently reauthorize that grant program. Some people will maybe know it as what’s referred to as GA/SNAP grants. But we did an analysis and showed that while they do a good job of targeting GA/SNAP grants to areas of high food insecurity, there’s still lots of high food insecurity areas that don’t have one available, and they’re always time limited to a few years. We’re not using the knowledge that we’ve already gained to accomplish this goal again that we’re beginning to talk about, which is to really focus on nutrition security and not just basic adequacy of diet. The other thing that people often raise is, well, perhaps we should restrict purchases of certain kinds of benefits. And I think, in general, we find that Americans don’t respond well to those kinds of limitations. And a concern, I think, that the food security space has about restrictions is that it’s potentially very stigmatizing just to low-income people who are using a benefit when the truth is that most of America doesn’t eat as well as we need to and that’s a larger structural conversation. The upshot is some people would advocate for restrictions on things like soda and candy, maybe other snacks. I think we could all understand why we wouldn’t want to prioritize that, but the fact of the matter is that restrictions don’t make the other things more affordable, and that is exactly what the nutrition incentives are intended to do.


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