It’s the Economy, Sonny: Why the Coronavirus Demands Maximum SNAP Benefits Now  

March 13, 2020 | 12:25 pm
Gerd Altmann/Pixabay
Rebecca Boehm
Former Contributor

UPDATE: The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which became law on March 18th, temporarily suspends a three-month time limit on participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for jobless adults not raising minor children. For further information about how the Families First Coronavirus Response Act impacts SNAP participation, please visit the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities website

Over the last three years the Trump administration and its Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue have gone straight for the jugular of our country’s social safety net. Through a series of new rules, they have sought to cut people off the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps), a program designed to help individuals and families avoid hunger. Though Congress—along with public health experts, anti-hunger advocates, and concerned citizens nationwide—expressly opposed SNAP cuts in the bipartisan 2018 Farm Bill, the administration has charged ahead with changes making it harder for hundreds of thousands of underemployed adults, immigrant families, and even schoolchildren to access healthy food. Even when the economy is humming along, as ours had been for some, these restrictions can hurt low-wage workers who are barely making ends meet.

Now we’re faced with a pandemic and what is rapidly becoming a serious economic crisis in reaction to it. The spread of COVID-19 or Coronavirus has already slowed the global economy, and people in this country are already starting to lose their jobs. More losses will follow, especially if the government doesn’t swiftly intervene by spending its money to help those most at risk of layoffs (think restaurant workers, truck drivers, janitors who clean office buildings). Basic economic theories support the use of programs like SNAP during downturns such as the one we’re witnessing right now (read this USDA Economic Research Service explainer for more details). But this isn’t just an economic downturn. This is an even more complex public health and economic problem all wrapped into one. Which is why the strength of our social safety net truly could not be more important than it is right now.

Yet earlier this week, sitting in my office for the last time for a while (we’re now practicing social distancing, and you should do if at all possible), I literally spit out my coffee when I learned that Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue confidently said that the Administration’s stricter SNAP participation time limits would still take effect on April 1 of this year. He said this even as a containment unit was being constructed in New York, schools and colleges around the country closed their doors, and the US death toll from the virus rose to at least 37.

My personal reaction to such a callous statement, even knowing that the secretary raised the possibility of “pandemic benefits,” is anger. And we should all be angry. Our current elected officials should care a lot more about our collective welfare than this. While the secretary did raise the possibility that pandemic benefits could be coming, they likely won’t come soon enough and could face Congressional opposition.

That is why this administration should immediately suspend or rescind every single SNAP rule proposed since it took office, at the very least until this crisis is contained. This action would be the easiest and quickest way of pumping money into our economy while helping the most vulnerable families keep food on the table. If Secretary Perdue’s pandemic benefits are delivered on top of that, even better. They should also fully support congressional proposals to increase nutrition program benefits for low-income seniors. And it is important to note that in this same legislation, Congress is also proposing to waive the SNAP participation time limits to take effect April 1. Hopefully this legislation will be signed into law very soon, and then Secretary Perdue’s callous leadership won’t matter much anyway.

Bottom line: delivering maximum SNAP benefits right now would be policymaking at its very best.