The Biden administration recently announced a record permanent increase in the value of food stamps aid going to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients around the country. The average amount received each month by each of the 42 million Americans relying on SNAP, formerly titled the Food Stamp Program, to put food on the table was $121 before the pandemic hit. It will now increase by $36, or 27 percent, reflecting what the Agriculture Department believes to be a more realistic cost of healthy foods.
This boost is nothing to sneeze at – it constitutes the largest permanent boost in the history of the public benefits program. But to truly end hunger in the United States and address the ongoing economic crises faced by people across this country, it’s vital for the same sort of boost to happen across all U.S. anti-poverty programs, with funds extracted from corporate profits and the ultra rich.
Bernie Sanders, chair of the powerful Senate Budget Committee has proposed just this, putting forward one bill to restore the corporate tax rate to 35 percent, which is where it was until Republicans reduced it to 21 percent in 2017. He has also introduced a second bill to create a progressive estate tax that would kick in on estates valued at $3.5 million and above. Such reforms would generate large sums of money that could be used to expand health care access, to put in place more programs tailored to low-income children, to expand safety net programs to noncitizen immigrants, and so on. These reforms will, however, take time; in the meanwhile, increasing the value of SNAP benefits is a good way to get bang-for-the-buck in reducing hunger, one of the most destructive consequences of poverty.
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As with so many of the new social programs and spending being pushed by the Biden administration, the impetus for the recent boost in SNAP benefits came with temporary fixes put in place during the first two waves of the pandemic. Then, with tens of millions of Americans suddenly out of work and unable to meet their basic needs, Congress temporarily increased the value of food stamps aid sent out to recipients by 15 percent. But that boost was initially slated to expire at the end of September.
Many states also utilized an emergency provision of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, passed in March 2020, allowing them to increase a SNAP recipient’s benefits to the maximum allowed on the sliding scale, thus effectively making the program an all-or-nothing affair rather than one calibrated to the different income levels of recipients. By this summer, however, some Republican-led states, which had already begun rolling back increased unemployment benefits, had their sights set on their expanded SNAP systems, and began rolling back their emergency rules that allowed for these increased benefits.
The GOP critique of these benefits was disingenuous. For even though the original increases were only meant to be temporary, the reality is that the United States has long failed to allocate enough resources to properly provide for the nutritional needs of its poorest residents. The COVID crisis shone a spotlight on the hunger crisis that has long been brewing in the shadows, and the temporary increases in food stamps and unemployment benefits were effective at taking millions of families out of absolute poverty; they showed that targeted government interventions can be dramatically powerful tools to mitigating the worst impacts of economic inequality.
The Biden administration’s permanent increase in food stamps this month is an overdue acknowledgement of this reality. And it stands in stark contrast to the efforts by his predecessor to block emergency SNAP payments to the poorest of recipients at the height of the public health crisis.
In fact, from the earliest days of the Trump administration, SNAP came under sustained fire from a political leadership that saw recipients as spongers and loafers, and viewed cutting SNAP as a key part of its toolkit to further limit the welfare system and further undermine vital anti-poverty programs. In the very first months after Trump’s inauguration, administration officials proposed cutting the program by $191 billion over 10 years. Luckily, that didn’t fly. Then, in late 2019, members of the Trump administration unveiled rules tightening up work requirements for recipients without children — putting the food stamps of roughly 700,000 people at risk. They also sought to make states more rigorously police who could enroll in SNAP, and recalculate income of applicants in a way that made it easier to deny benefits. All told, the Urban Institute estimated that if these reforms were fully implemented, the number of recipients in several states would fall by at least 15 percent in 13 states. Then, during the pandemic, the Trump administration continued to wage war on SNAP, despite private food bank and food pantry networks being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of suddenly hungry people lining up on foot and in cars to access their food supplies.
Thankfully, Trump’s team never really managed to implement its draconian cuts to food stamps. There was no congressional consensus to accept these cuts, and no public support to impose hunger on millions of Americans already living on the margins. In fact, by the time the pandemic rolled around, the administration had been participating in a yearly stunt for three years already, regularly promising huge cuts to food stamps as a way to assuage its anti-government base, while knowing full well that of all the big pillars of the U.S. welfare system, food assistance is the one that has garnered more bipartisan support in Congress — and among the public — than virtually any other part of the social support web outside of social security and Medicare.
Biden came to power last January projecting ambitions to use government in the way Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson had done, as a counterbalance against economic policy that kept millions of Americans in dire poverty. He had, as a result, a dramatically different understanding of the social safety net from his predecessor, and a willingness to put his weight behind huge expansions in government programs ranging from the provision of health care to low-income people to child tax credit payments offered to parents by the federal government.
Among his earliest executive actions, the new president increased the amount of SNAP benefits targeted at 12 million of the U.S.’s lowest-income families. In this, he was following in the footsteps of FDR, who created the country’s first food stamp program, which lasted from 1939-43; John F. Kennedy, who presided over the creation of food stamp pilot programs in 1961; and Lyndon Johnson, who pushed Congress to enact the Food Stamp Act of 1964, which made the program both permanent and national in scope. As the program expanded in the wake of that Act, so it came to play a crucial role in efforts to rein in poverty. In recent years, researchers have found that an additional 4.4 percent of the population would be in poverty without this program.
Biden has ambitions to use the power of government to massively reduce poverty in this country. In particular, he has focused on halving child poverty in the coming years, through direct monthly payments to families, and through a better use of existing programs such as SNAP.
But to truly change the landscape of poverty and inequality in this country, this turn toward state spending can’t just be framed in limited ways as a project to restore consumer spending. And the expansions to public benefits programs can’t adequately be paid for through tax revenues without a targeted effort to redistribute the gross profits that corporations have been hogging in increasing proportions each year.
The U.S. was at its most dynamic economically in the post-WWII decades, when income inequality was lower than at other moments in the country’s history, and when corporate tax rates were higher. Today, wealthy individuals and corporations pay less into the tax pot and, in consequence, public systems and benefits programs are chronically underfunded. The president has the public behind him on the changes needed to tackle poverty in the U.S. Now he needs to marshal his negotiating skills to get the fractious Democratic coalition in Congress to coalesce around this agenda.