The Biden administration is quietly laying the groundwork for a long-term increase in food aid for tens of millions of Americans, without going through the ordeal of a fight with congressional Republicans.
The instrument is an obscure U.S. Department of Agriculture shopping list used to determine food stamp benefits, known as the market basket.
A review of the so-called Thrifty Food Plan, ordered by Biden two days after he took office, could trigger an automatic increase in benefits as soon as Oct. 1, a day after expiration of a temporary 15% boost in food stamp payments that Biden included in his $1.9 trillion Covid-relief package.
James Ziliak, director of the Center for Poverty Research at the University of Kentucky, said the re-evaluation “could result in an upward adjustment of 20% or more in the benefits.” That would amount to roughly a $136-a-month increase in the maximum benefit for a family of four, which was $680 before the temporary pandemic-related increase.
“This is really meaningful,” said Jason Furman, a Harvard Kennedy School of Government professor who was chairman of President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers. “It’s one of the bigger things government can do for poverty without Congress.”
The reappraisal culminates a years-long campaign by anti-hunger advocates to reassess the market basket. The value hasn’t been increased other than adjustments for inflation for six decades.
The move is emblematic of a broad commitment to anti-poverty programs across the Biden administration. Such initiatives were part of the Covid-relief package and included in Biden’s more recent proposals for infrastructure and social program spending. In April, the Agriculture Department extended a universal free school lunch program tied to pandemic relief through the entire 2021-22 school year.
It’s a sharp reversal from the Trump administration, which tried to limit eligibility for food aid, though the proposed restrictions were overturned by courts. Food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, once enjoyed broad bipartisan support. They’ve evolved into a partisan flashpoint in recent years, as conservatives fought to shrink the program. House Republicans tried to impose cuts in 2013 and 2018, the last two times the program was reauthorized as part of the five-year Farm Bill.
Biden often speaks of one of the most jarring images of pandemic-year economic collapse -- cars lined up for miles outside food banks to wait for a box of groceries -- and invoked it again in his first address to Congress as he explained the importance of anti-hunger initiatives in his vision for the country. “I didn’t ever think I’d see that in America,” he told millions watching at home.
The pandemic stirred public concern over hunger as seemingly secure middle- and working-class families suddenly became vulnerable. By December, one in seven U.S. households reported not having had enough to eat sometimes or often in the prior week, and in January 41.8 million Americans were on food stamps -- 4.7 million, or 12.8%, more than a year earlier.
The racial reckoning following the police killing of George Floyd further energized concern among Democrats, since food insecurity disproportionately hits Black, Hispanic and Native American children, along with the elderly and people with disabilities.
Advocates argue that the $22-a-day food budget USDA currently sets for a family of four is woefully inadequate and relies on outdated, unrealistic assumptions. The market basket assumes a family eats more than five pounds of beans a week, for example. And outside studies have found that the food plan requires spending about two hours a day preparing meals, largely from scratch, at a time the average American family spends just a half hour on daily food preparation.
SNAP benefits are calculated on a sliding scale based on income and the number and age of people in a household. Recipients are expected to spend 30% of their net income on food, with food stamps making up the deficit from the USDA food budget. Benefits can only be used to purchase groceries.
More than a quarter of the households enrolled in SNAP exhaust their monthly benefits in the first week after issuance, and more than half do so by the second week, according to a 2011 USDA study.
The Obama administration considered changing the USDA food budget so seriously that the decision went all the way up to the president. But at a June 2015 Oval Office meeting with his top economic and domestic policy advisers, Obama ultimately decided not to tamper with the market basket, mindful that Republicans then controlled both houses of Congress, according to Furman.
“We made a pragmatic decision that it not only could be overridden by a Republican Congress, but they could put something worse in its place. So we decided not to poke the bear,” Furman said.
With Democrats now holding narrow majorities in the House and Senate, “the Republicans could put up a good fight, but at the end of the day I don’t think they could do anything to stop it,” said Mike Conaway, a former Republican House Agriculture Committee chairman who retired from Congress last year.
The U.S. has periodically reviewed the market basket, first established as the Economy Food Plan in 1961 and updated in 1975 as the Thrifty Food Plan, to adjust for changes in nutritional guidelines and food consumption patterns. The most recent review came in 2006. Yet the reviews were always constrained to keep costs constant.
This time, the review won’t be required to be cost-neutral, said Stacy Dean, a senior USDA official leading the review on behalf of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
“A core goal of the secretary is to assure nutrition security, not just food security,” Dean said. “We want to make sure the benefits we are providing really and truly can support a nutritious and healthy diet.”
Dean won’t commit to a timeline for finishing the review, but said it would “ideally” be done by summer. If so, she said, the updated market basket could be used to set benefits beginning Oct. 1, when they’re annually adjusted for inflation.
The Biden administration isn’t officially prejudging the outcome of the review, but officials have made clear they believe current benefit levels aren’t sufficient.
“It’s fair to say that the SNAP benefit is in many cases not adequate enough to provide the help and assistance that is needed,” Vilsack told an anti-hunger conference in March, describing the review. “I suspect that we’re going to find that the foundation of that program doesn’t meet the activities of normal American families today, and that may result in some adjustment in terms of the benefit.”
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