A Hunger Cliff Is Looming: Time to Rethink Nutrition Assistance

January 31, 2023 | 2:33 pm
California Air National Guard members deliver food on April 2, 2020, as part of the Cal Guard's COVID-19 humanitarian missionThe National Guard/Flickr
Alice Reznickova
Former Contributor

It may be hard for many people to remember, but the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 triggered a crisis of food insecurity in this country. Policymakers met the moment with expanded pandemic food assistance benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps), but a second crisis is coming. This month, the federal government will officially (and in my opinion, prematurely) end the pandemic food assistance expansion. This could push many households over a so-called hunger cliff. But it doesn’t have to be that way. 

In December, in a rush to prevent a government shutdown, lawmakers pitted summer child nutrition programs against the still-needed continuation of pandemic expansion to SNAP dollars, which had offered low-income households additional SNAP dollars since April 2021. While we applaud the passing of hopefully permanent support to child nutrition programs, we called out Congress for presenting a false choice between alleviating food insecurity for all SNAP recipients during the continued national emergency… and alleviating food insecurity only for SNAP households with children, only during summers.   

Is SNAP enough?

Since then, some organizations have been warning the public about the approaching hunger cliff for many of the 42 million people who depend on SNAP. Monthly SNAP benefits will go down approximately $82 per person each month. Because so many people are now at risk of going hungry without these extra benefits, this shows that pre-pandemic SNAP was insufficient. In other words, the pandemic expansion of SNAP was not just an emergency benefit, but rather, an integral supplement that would have made SNAP work better in the future. At the same time, despite SNAP benefits, between 10-15% of households in the United States were food insecure each year in the last 20 years, highlighting the need to re-evaluate eligibility.  

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, SNAP provided on average $121 per individual or $237 for a household, while the latest data from September 2022 show a near-doubling of these benefits with $224 per individual and $426 per household (this includes the recent expansion due to the Thrifty Food Plan re-evaluation, although to some extent, inflation has already cut into that). SNAP supports both urban and rural households and through dollars spent on food locally promotes local economic health. However, SNAP also has important gaps: many who need help putting food on the table may not qualify and those who do may not receive enough benefits. And finally, SNAP is often singled out for punitive restrictions that we do not see in other government programs–including the recently proposed (and, after a public uproar, revised) bill in Iowa trying to limit what households can purchase with their SNAP benefits.  

Not everyone who is food-insecure qualifies for SNAP 

Under the very confusing federal SNAP eligibility rules, households with a gross income within 130% of the poverty threshold and a net income (gross income minus some deductions such as medical care for the elderly or disabled and excessive housing costs) within the poverty threshold qualify for SNAP assistance. For an individual, 130% of poverty threshold is $18,954 and for a household of four, $39,000.  

But does this capture everyone who may need help? Some back-of-the-envelope math using national food security data shows that almost 19% of households with incomes between 130% and 185% of the poverty threshold (up to $26,973 for an individual and $55,500 for a family of four) identify as food insecure–but because of their income, they do not qualify for SNAP benefits. This happens at even higher incomes as 5% of those above 185% of poverty threshold are food-insecure–this means that in the United States, having an income almost twice the poverty threshold can still leave you hungry. Households that may not be able to afford food but are above the income cutoff at 130% of the poverty threshold are ineligible and effectively invisible to SNAP benefits.  

While the poverty threshold may appear to be a useful guideline, the consensus among experts is that it is largely inaccurate. Few would know that the poverty threshold in the United States originated in the 1960s and was determined using the cost of a government-determined diet in 1963. At that time, a government survey concluded that families spend about one third of their household income on food. The argument therefore goes like this: if a third of a household income cannot purchase what the government views as a standard food plan, they live below the poverty threshold and need supplemental assistance to prevent food insecurity.  

Sixty years later, this concept is outdated. The introduction of new necessities (such as technology) as well as skyrocketing costs for healthcare, education, and housing take up more space in a household budget while incomes have stagnated. This means that households may be spending more than 70% of their income on other necessities and may not be able to afford food even at incomes higher than the federal poverty threshold. The poverty threshold is also standardized across the entire continental United States (meaning Alaska and Hawai’i have slightly different thresholds), even though we know that costs of living vary within and between states, with urban areas being more expensive to live in.  

Science confirms this. For instance, researchers in New York City suggested a new measure called a self-sufficiency standard that includes all expenses, not just food. In New York City, the self-sufficiency standard is roughly three times the federal poverty threshold. While 12% of people in New York City are below the federal poverty threshold, 36% have incomes that fall below the self-sufficiency standard. This means that households below three times the federal poverty threshold may struggle to afford food–and many of them are excluded from SNAP benefits. These examples point out an important gap in our use of the poverty threshold to determine eligibility for food assistance.  

Finally, there are many who are excluded from participation upfront. College students generally do not have access to SNAP (unless they meet one of the exemptions according to USDA rules) despite studies consistently showing food insecurity rates much higher than those in the general population. And farm workers, many of whom are food-insecure, may face additional barriers in accessing SNAP, or may not be eligible due to their immigration status.   

Those who still go hungry

Many studies show that SNAP dollars do not go far enough. In 2021, almost one out of five households that received SNAP classified as food-insecure and one out of three households that received SNAP supplemented their budgets with food pantry visits. Another study found that six out of ten SNAP recipients reported that food prices prevent them from eating nutritious food. This suggests SNAP is not enough to buy food, or to eat nutritiously. Why does this happen?  

SNAP is, as the name suggests, a supplement to household income to purchase groceries. The amount of SNAP a household receives is based on their income (adjusted for some expenditures as discussed previously) with one-third of this income supposedly marked up for household food budget. The role of SNAP is to close the difference between this food budget and what the government considers to be the cost of a monthly food plan. If a household earns no money, they receive the full amount of SNAP, which is called the maximum monthly allotment, but most households receive much less. For instance, in 2023 the maximum allotment for a household of four is $939, but the estimated average amount is $718. This means that even the maximum benefit for a family of four results in a mere $2.61 per meal, per person. At a lower benefit amount, this budget gets even smaller.  

This maximum allotment is based on the Thrifty Food Plan–a food plan designed by the USDA to theoretically afford a nutritious, but relatively low-cost diet. Any changes to SNAP benefits are based on changes to the Thrifty Food Plan, which historically meant that once a year, SNAP increases to account for inflation (delayed by several months, which makes the value of SNAP decrease over the course of the year). In 2021, the Thrifty Food Plan was evaluated and updated for the first time, which resulted in an increase of approximately $36 per person per month. While this is a positive change it does not account for the changing costs of everything else in households’ budgets, including the cost of travel to the supermarket. 

As almost two-thirds of households do not receive the maximum benefit amount, it is likely that given the increased cost of living, households cannot actually supplement SNAP with their income. Feeding America reported that people often make difficult decisions between paying for food–or for housing, utilities, health care, and education, which for some may result in not eating (or getting food in other ways, such as food banks). For others, according to this study, it means delaying paying bills, or skipping important medications.  

The solution? Expand SNAP for healthy communities and local economies 

While the expanded pandemic benefits sunset next week, we have a new opportunity in the food and farm bill in 2023 to rethink nutrition assistance. We need to have food assistance that promotes nutritious and sustainable foods for those who need them. To do this, the government needs to expand access, as well as the amount of SNAP benefits households receive.  

The federal government should seek guidance from low-income urban and rural communities regarding their lived realities. They should also consult with organizations that have been studying SNAP, and those expanding the reach of SNAP benefits by leveraging government and private funding, such as by doubling the value of SNAP dollars for locally produced fruits and vegetables at farmers’ markets and in retail as well as produce prescriptions. Evaluations demonstrate that these programs are successful at increasing fresh food access while offering an economic benefit to the community.  

But as some lawmakers begin to critique the amount of money spent on nutrition in the food and farm bill, we need to remember that food insecurity is an outcome of complex causes including increasing wealth inequality, stagnating wages (let’s remember that those working full time with the federal minimum wage of $7.25 likely qualify for SNAP according to the federal eligibility guidelines!), rising costs of education and healthcare, and continued structural racism that actively keep communities, particularly BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) communities, from escaping the cycle of poverty. Aside from SNAP advocacy, we need to continue asking for policies that address inequality and injustice–and only then can we have sustainable, nutritious food for all.