A few years ago, the Center for Food and Labor Research began encouraging celebrities, politicians, and other public figures to live for a week on payment equivalent to government food aid. The goal was to show how difficult it is to live on food stamp benefits and to mobilize support to improve it. It enhances some awareness. In 2015, actress Junith Paltrow quit the challenge after she ran out of food after four days.
But the challenge lasts longer for the actual beneficiaries. Many beneficiaries of the Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program do not have enough food, and if they buy enough food, they are unable to pay rent or car expenses. So let’s applaud the Biden administration for its multi-front war against the catastrophe of food insecurity and hunger. This year, the administration announced a 25% expansion in SFP benefits, the largest increase in the program’s history, scheduled for October. A household survey conducted by the Census Bureau reveals that with the first Biden administration’s child tax credit checks issued last July, fewer families are reported to have problems buying or obtaining adequate food or problems meeting basic expenses.
Taken together, the changes are set to result in greater food security for millions of American families. Rebecca Fallas, a senior fellow at the non-profit progressive think-tank Century Foundation, believes that Biden is making “historic steps toward addressing the crisis of poverty and hunger in the United States that preceded the pandemic.”
The pandemic has exacerbated some of the long-standing inequalities in our society and highlighted some of the problems arising from it. For example, when pandemic relief has led to a rising savings rate, it turns out that many poorer Americans simply do not have enough money to save, not because they are not good at managing their own meager financial resources or forget to save some money. And the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SFP) subsidies tell us this. These benefits are calculated using the Food Saving Plan, a formula developed decades ago when few women worked outside the home. The plan supposes the most economical options in buying food, such as buying grain in large quantities and not in small quantities, more readily available, and in preparing food by the most costly means that require hours of work. Now all that has changed, says Lauren Bauer, an economist at the Brookings Institution.
Bauer noted that nutrition standards have also changed. Modern guidelines emphasize the need to have fresh fish, fruits, vegetables and meat, all of which are more expensive than canned or processed foods. Because of very outdated criteria, SFP recipients were spending more than 75% of their monthly benefits within two weeks. Contrary to misconception, money was not being squandered to buy lobster and soda. A decade ago, managers of the retail chain Walmart noticed that the night before monthly benefit money was deposited into SFP cards, customers would arrive in stores, fill carts with groceries, and wait until midnight to pay.
And in 2010, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, Bill Simon, Walmart’s CEO, stated in 2010 that “the only reason someone would go out in the middle of the night to buy nutritional supplements for children was because they needed them and they were waiting for them.” During the Trump years, Congress, through a bipartisan vote, called for an update of the “Food Plan.” Trump has spent much of his presidency trying to scale back the Supplemental Food Assistance Program, proposing a budget cut and proposing tougher job requirements for recipients of benefits. But the changes Biden brought about are quite different. Beginning this fall, when some pandemic assistance programs are due to end, each food-subsidy recipient will receive an additional $36 per month.
This raises the average benefits that a person receives from $121 to $157, an increase of $144 per month for a family of four, which is not a bad increase. The children’s tax credit also helps stabilize the finances of many families. More than 90% of American families with children age 17 or younger receive the credits. The Statistics Office survey indicated a decrease in hunger among families with children, but it did not monitor such a change in families without children.
Nearly half of families with children told survey respondents that they spent at least some money on food. The children’s tax credit is due to expire in December, and polls indicate a majority of Americans oppose extending it. But opponents don’t see the bigger picture. Spending now for better health for families, will support the capabilities of the children of these families, who may grow up to earn more money, and may also reduce their demand for the health care system and therefore lower costs. This is better for all of us.
* An American writer and member of the advisory board of the “Economic Hardship Monitoring Project” to combat poverty and economic insecurity.
Published by special arrangement with the Washington Post and Bloomberg News Service.