For three years, Sarah Wilson, a disabled 60-year-old living in rural Maryland, received $281 a month from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps. Coupled with a $1,700 monthly Social Security disability check, the former social worker made do.
“My finances were manageable,” she told Truthout. “Then they notified me during the second week of February, telling me that because of an 8.7 percent increase in my Social Security payments and the end of Emergency COVID Allotments, my SNAP will be cut to $23 a month beginning in March.”
Wilson sounds panicked as she ticks off her expenses: $1000 for rent, $50 for the phone, and $91 for utilities. “I don’t have cable. I don’t have WIFI and I had to let my car go because gas and insurance were so expensive,” she said. “There is no public transportation near me so I’m basically homebound, stuck in the middle of nowhere. I try to use telehealth for doctor visits, but when I have to go in person, taking a Lyft costs $32 each way. It’s as if the government suddenly decided to treat poor people as badly as possible.”
Wilson says that she will now rely on a local food pantry to deliver a small monthly food box, but worries about having to forego the electrolyte drinks and high protein foods that her doctor recommended. “Twenty-three dollars is nothing,” she said. “Nothing.”
Wilson is just one of the approximately 41 million U.S. residents — 1 in 8 people — to be impacted by the cutbacks. In fact, SNAP reductions — effective March 2023 — have hit every beneficiary, regardless of whether they are disabled, elderly or school aged.
Responsibility for these cuts rests with Congress, which allowed the COVID-19 SNAP Emergency Allotment (EA), in effect since pandemic shutdowns began in spring 2020, to expire.
These allotments gave individuals like Wilson an additional $250 a month for food; families also saw a hefty increase. But now, thanks to the EA expiration and an increase in Social Security payments, seniors and the disabled are facing a double whammy; their increased income has reduced their eligibility for SNAP.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the federal agency that oversees all government-run food and nutrition programs, “SNAP Emergency Allotments were a temporary strategy authorized by Congress to help low-income individuals and families deal with the hardship of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Although meant to offer only short-term help, the allotments proved to be an effective tool for stemming hunger. Researchers and policy analysts at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), a nonpartisan Washington, D.C. think tank, studied the program and found that EA kept 4.2 million people above the poverty line in the final quarter of 2021 (the last period for which data is available) and reduced overall poverty by 10 percent. Child poverty, the CBPP reports, fell by 14 percent.
Other short-term changes in SNAP policy also proved beneficial in reducing both hunger and poverty. Among them, the suspension of a rule that bars able-bodied adults without dependents from receiving more than three months of SNAP benefits in a three-year period unless they are employed at least 20 hours a week or enrolled in an approved job training program. Other suspended rules allowed some college students to receive benefits and kept unemployment grants from being counted as income when calculating program eligibility.
These rule suspensions are now over, leaving some recipients with no benefits whatsoever and others, like Sarah Wilson, with significantly reduced allotments. The CBPP estimates that on average, the cuts will mean a loss of $132 a month in SNAP allocations for single people and $197 a month for households of three.
Hunger Free America, a New York City-based direct service and advocacy organization, predicted that the decrease will send people into “a Grand Canyon of hunger.”
For its part, the USDA is well aware of the program’s inadequacies. Even before COVID, the federal agency recognized that 88 percent of SNAP recipients had trouble accessing healthy food. The major barrier, unsurprisingly, has always been cost. What’s more, a USDA infographic acknowledges that 19 percent of SNAP beneficiaries live too far from grocery stores to shop in them. Even more damning, the same USDA infographic notes how much it costs to eat; the agency estimates that a healthy diet for a “reference family,” defined by law as an adult male and adult female between the ages of 20 to 50 with two children between the ages 6 and 8 and 9 and 11, is currently at least $977.70 per month. Putting aside the heteronormativity of the formulation, this amount is approximately $40 a month more than the maximum SNAP allocation for a household of four: $939.
Add in soaring food prices — costs rose 3.9 percent in 2021 and 9.9 percent in 2022 — and it’s not hard to understand why hunger is on the rise.
Gina Plata-Nino, SNAP deputy director at the Food Research and Action Center, told Truthout that inflation has made the cuts particularly devastating. “At a time when inflation is so high, the impact will be particularly acute for older people, the disabled and households with small children,” she began. “We need to protect and expand benefits and change the way eligibility for SNAP is calculated. The program needs to take into account special dietary needs so that people with diabetes, celiac disease, kidney disease, and other illnesses can buy the foods they need, even if they’re expensive.” She added that SNAP also fails to account for widespread food accessibility issues. “The program assumes that an applicant or recipient can cook at home and has access to healthy food from a nearby market. Food banks are great. Soup kitchens are great, and people rely on both,” she said. “But these programs depend on donations and philanthropy to function. This can make what they offer inconsistent.”
Amma Velezhinskaya, a 77-year-old Ukrainian immigrant, says that this makes meal planning difficult since she cannot assume that what she got from Masbia, a kosher food pantry with locations in Brooklyn and Queens, New York, this week will be provided the next. Nonetheless, she waits in line every Friday to get three days’ worth of groceries. “I take two buses to get to the pantry,” she told Truthout. “I take care of my 90-year-old sister and cook for both of us. Food is so expensive. My food stamps used to be $258 a month but they just cut them to $196. Masbia helps me. They don’t provide meat but depending on what they have, I sometimes get cheese, flour, fresh fruit and vegetables, canned tuna and maybe, potatoes.”
Jona Giako is the supervisor of Masbia in Boro Park, Brooklyn, one of the program’s three locations. “We serve between 65 and 85 clients per hour and serve sit-down meals to between 150 and 200 people four nights a week,” he said. “Since the start of COVID demand has gone up by about 30 percent. A lot more people are hungry and they travel to Brooklyn from all over, even Staten Island and the Bronx. Food stamps allotments have never been enough for most people, and now we’re looking at a new and growing crisis.”
Masbia founder Alexander Rapaport agrees and told Truthout that demand for food typically exceeds the program’s supply. “We control the number of appointments for bags of food based on what we have available to distribute,” he said. “We call it a digital breadline and give people a five-minute window to come in and pick up their groceries. When we have more food to distribute — we sometimes buy the products we distribute ourselves and we get supplies from the Food Bank for New York City and City Harvest — we open up more appointments. People pounce on every available slot. The need is enormous.”
Indeed, City Harvest estimates that 1.5 million New Yorkers like Velezhinskaya are struggling to feed themselves and their loved ones, a 36 percent increase from pre-pandemic levels.
Other states report a similar surge.
Nicole Williams is CEO of the Food Bank of Central Alabama, an organization that provides food to 230 agencies in 12 counties. “The EA allotment gave SNAP recipients in Alabama an extra $95 per month,” she began. “That’s a lot of money and the payment helped thousands of households make ends meet. But a lot more people have needed food since COVID. Some lost jobs, others were temporarily furloughed because of the virus, and many others had never used a food bank before but realized that they needed help. We served 16 million people last year, up from 11 million before the pandemic.”
But acquiring enough food for distribution has proved as challenging in central Alabama as it has in central Brooklyn. In 2020 and 2021, Williams told Truthout, the USDA gave the program about half the food that was disbursed, but in 2022 the amount provided plummeted to 28 percent of the total.
The majority of the food, 40 percent, Williams explains, now comes from “retail reclamation.”
“We can distribute food that is at-or-near its sell-by date within 24 hours of receiving it,” she said. “It can be produce, milk, or other perishable products. Stores provide us with about 1.5 million pounds of food a month.” Food drives, she adds, also help, although they provide only 3 percent of what is distributed. “Many people can no longer afford to donate an extra can of beans due to inflation,” she said.
The food bank is also probing other ways to help the poor, including establishing food pantries in area public schools to help families cope with the loss of free school meals, another program that was initiated because of COVID-19. That, too, has ended in Alabama and 47 other states.
And food banks are joining activists from around the country to assess what more can be done at the federal level.
“If we really want to ameliorate hunger, Congress has to act,” Joel Berg, CEO of
Hunger Free America told Truthout. “They can start by raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour — still the hourly minimum in 20 states. Thankfully, Biden got the Republicans to take cuts to Medicare and Social Security off the table, but cuts to military spending are also off the table and last year Congress gave the Pentagon even more than it asked for. Congress also allowed the Child Tax Credit to expire.” Democrats did little to stop this from happening, Berg said. “It’s ridiculous, but right now the only realistic strategy is to try to prevent further reductions to social welfare programs.”
At the same time, albeit a longshot, several members of Congress have introduced bills to mitigate hunger and offset the current round of SNAP cuts.
HR 1510, the Improving Access to Nutrition Act, introduced by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-California), will amend the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008 to repeal the time limit on SNAP eligibility for “able-bodied” adults. Similarly, the Enhance Access to SNAP Act, introduced by Reps. Jimmy Gomez (D-California) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) will extend SNAP eligibility to low-income college students who work fewer than 20 hours a week. Lawmakers in several states are also pushing for universal school meals, an effort that was recently successful in Minnesota. Lastly, in late February, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy announced that the state will provide $95 a month to every SNAP recipient in the state to make up for the EA reduction.
Advocates are, of course, cheered by these developments. Nonetheless, Berg is circumspect. “Progressives tend to think that because we have morality and facts on our side, that’s all that matters,” he said. “Advocates thought that we didn’t have to push Congress to make the Child Tax Credits permanent because we believed that once the lawmakers saw its positive impact on poor and working-class families, they’d never end the program. That they did reflects how little juice there is for anything that helps poor people. The bad news is that there are no permanent victories but there are also no permanent setbacks. Right now, the poor are getting the short end of the stick. It will not always be this way.”