On March 1, the federal government shut off enhanced SNAP benefits for 32 states, D.C., Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. SNAP, colloquially known as food stamps, gives monthly food stipends to low-income Americans, and was expanded as part of the COVID emergency response, increasing benefits for the program’s 42 million recipients.
Now, with those emergency allotments cut off, the average recipient will get about $90 less per month in food aid than they’d been getting for over two years; a family of four could see their monthly benefit cut by about $328 a month; and seniors could see their benefits drop from $281 a month to just $23. An estimated 31 million Americans have now been thrown off what’s been called “the hunger cliff.”
Those drastic cuts have food banks bracing for impact, and some grocery executives celebrating. On a late February earnings call of Grocery Outlet, a discount supermarket chain that relies on SNAP for a high percentage of its sales, the company’s chief financial officer cheered the coming reductions. “In many ways,” he told investors, it “is good for our model as those benefits decline.”
“It does put more pressure on those consumers, and they come to us to stretch their dollar,” he said of the impending cuts.
SNAP is one of the most important and effective welfare programs in the country, with 42 million people currently enrolled. And the enhanced SNAP addition that boosted benefits was a particularly effective anti-poverty provision, helping children and people of color in particular. One study from the Urban Institute found that the extra allotments kept 4.2 million people above the poverty line in the last quarter of 2021. That reduced poverty by 10 percent, and child poverty by 14 percent. The reduction in poverty rates was highest for Black and Latino populations.
But enhanced SNAP wasn’t just effective at fighting poverty. It was also very popular.
Both rural and urban Americans overwhelmingly supported the expanded program, according to a 2022 Purdue University survey on food policy. And yet, in December, in a pact averting a government shutdown, congressional Democrats quietly agreed to a deal with Republicans that shut down enhanced SNAP prematurely: The Department of Health and Human Services extended the COVID emergency declaration until May, but the emergency SNAP enhancements were only allowed to continue through February.
The timing couldn’t be worse. Groceries were about 11.3 percent higher in price in January than a year earlier, as food producers bank record profits. And it’s no mystery what will happen next.
Some states with Republican governors and legislatures began cutting back enhanced SNAP on their own as early as 2021, when Democrats assumed control of Congress and the presidency. Before last week, 18 states had already severed the emergency benefit.
The result was an overwhelming surge to food banks and charitable organizations. In Arizona, which cut off its enhanced SNAP benefits in spring of 2022, the drain on food banks still hasn’t let up.
“In 2022 when enhanced SNAP ended, and inflation was up, we were seeing 1,500 families a day, more than during the worst of COVID. And the numbers have not gone down any, not one day since. We’ve got three lines running around the block from before we open at 8:00 to when we close at 1:30,” Jerry Brown of St. Mary’s Food Bank, which operates two Arizona centers in the cities of Phoenix and Surprise, told me.
With grocery prices rising alongside the cost of rent in many cities, the strain on food banks like St. Mary’s has gotten even worse. “We thought COVID would be a high-water mark, and we’d be like, ‘Hey, remember 2020?’ ” Brown said. “Nobody has to ‘remember’ 2020 because 2022 was worse.”
In neighboring New Mexico, which has the highest percentage of its population on SNAP of any state in the country, Arizona’s example is a terrifying sign of what’s to come. “We’re incredibly apprehensive about what lies ahead,” Jill Dixon, the deputy director of the Food Depot, a food bank network in northern New Mexico, told me. “We’re referring to it as the perfect storm, these converging factors all going the wrong direction—folks having SNAP benefits cut in half or more, USDA allocations to food banks dropping significantly and steadily, fewer donations from grocery stores that are getting more efficient using technology. There’s less food coming into the food bank than ever has in the past.”
Higher food prices for families have also meant higher prices for food banks—which are having to buy more food to provide for the growing numbers of hungry people who now count on these centers to make up the difference.
In Arizona, said Brown, “we’re purchasing more food than we ever have before, which is 20 to 25 percent more expensive because of inflation, and we’re stretching less and less food and giving it to more and more people.” In northern New Mexico, said Dixon, the Food Depot already expanded its “food purchase budget” because “we exhausted our budget four months into the fiscal year.” And that was before the SNAP cuts set in. “We’re looking at next quarter seeing those numbers explode,” Dixon said.
The worst may be yet to come. Every five years, Congress negotiates the Farm Bill, which is the country’s largest agricultural and food policy omnibus. It’s up for negotiation again this fall. In the last go-around in 2018, Republicans tried to gore SNAP benefits during its deliberation, at the behest of President Trump, but failed to do so.
It’s no secret that slashing SNAP is yet again on the GOP’s wishlist. SNAP has also come up as a potential hostage in the debt limit fight. After the party’s vocal pledge during Biden’s State of the Union not to cut Social Security or Medicare—and the party’s quasi-religious respect for the largest possible military budget—SNAP remains one of the only major social services that might be cut in the name of a “balanced budget.”
For President Biden, the quiet expiration of enhanced SNAP marks yet another disappearing act in his once vaunted welfare state. The Child Tax Credit, a signature Biden policy in the American Rescue Plan Act, halved child poverty. But it expired with relatively little pushback at the end of 2021. Enhanced unemployment benefits expired three months before that.
Now, Medicaid is next. The continuous enrollment provision that was added to Medicaid during COVID, which has allowed Americans to remain enrolled in the program without constant eligibility reassessments, is set to expire on March 31. It is estimated that between 5 million and 14 million people will promptly lose Medicaid coverage once that change is effectuated. And despite the fact that these programs are effective and popular, there has been shockingly little vocal opposition from Democrats to the expiration of these benefits.
In the first two years of the Biden administration, some very good progress was made in the so-called war on poverty. But those gains are being given back quickly.
“This is a steep and precipitous drop in benefit amounts,” said Ellen Vollinger, SNAP director for the Food Research and Action Center. “There would’ve been a smoother offramp if people had had more months to plan. The decision was made at the end of December, and getting the word out was a challenge.”
As it stands, enhanced SNAP looks like yet another program that works well and is well liked—but that Democrats can’t make last. Some Democrats have indeed talked about expanding SNAP permanently in the new Farm Bill, much in the same way they’ve talked about expanding Social Security and Medicare. But the lack of willingness to fight for SNAP when it was already expanded is not a heartening sign. “We hoped they would learn lessons from what worked and apply it on a permanent basis,” Vollinger said.