One is an unprecedented update of the Thrifty Food Plan – an estimate of the minimum cost of groceries to meet a family’s needs. That revision is behind the largest-ever permanent increase in benefits and puts a healthier diet within reach for the 42 million Americans enrolled in SNAP, which replaced food stamps.
In doing the research for an upcoming book on the history of the food stamps program, I have found that the government has often temporarily expanded nutritional assistance during tough economic times. Long-term increases in benefits, however, are unusual. And the origins of this change are quite surprising.
How high will SNAP benefits be?
The maximum SNAP benefit for a family of four with little or no income will rise to $835 per month. That’s 21% above pre-pandemic levels after inflation is taken into account.
Without the emergency help, a single person might get a benefit as low as $20 a month. With it, they get $250.
This policy has given many families who would otherwise qualify for lower SNAP benefits hundreds of extra dollars a month to buy food.
The Trump administration did not offer emergency help to the lowest-income SNAP participants already getting the maximum benefit, but the Biden administration reversed this policy starting April 1, 2021.
The new plan allows people getting benefits to spend more on prepared foods, vegetables and grains, as well as dairy products and other sources of protein.
Why didn’t benefits rise more in the past?
Until 2021, the USDA had updated the Thrifty Food Plan in 1983, 1999 and 2006 only to accommodate changing nutritional guidance and food preferences.
But the USDA had never revised the Thrifty Food Plan in such a way that it would cost more, aside from inflation-related adjustments, to buy the recommended food. Therefore the government never increased the purchasing power of nutrition benefits.
The USDA acknowledged in 2006 that the Thrifty Food Plan fell short of what was needed for a nutritious diet. But it didn’t revise the Thrifty Food Plan to fix that problem because the agency concluded it wasn’t possible to do so without spending more on SNAP.
The 2018 farm bill required the USDA to update the Thrifty Food Plan by studying “current food prices, food composition data, consumption patterns and dietary guidance.”
It called for a review to take place by 2022 and every five years thereafter. The USDA completed the review in August 2021.
SNAP benefits will remain higher for many Americans after a pandemic-era boost ends. USDA
Even in a strong economy, more than 1 in 5 SNAP recipients would use up their benefits by the middle of the month, and 1 in 3 depleted them by the end of the third week.
And 61% of SNAP recipients said the cost of healthy food prevented them from eating better, according to USDA research released in June 2021.
Researchers estimate that the maximum benefit will now cover the cost of modest meals in 79% of counties, compared with only 4% of counties under the old formula.
This update to national nutrition standards could pull 2.4 million SNAP recipients out of poverty, including more than 1 million children, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank, has estimated.
How did this happen?
In making this change, the Biden administration continued with a process the Republican-controlled Congress set in motion three years earlier.
Former Rep. K. Michael Conaway, a Republican who played a pivotal role when Congress passed the bill, has said the law was drafted under the assumption that the USDA would refrain from changes to the Thrifty Food Plan that would increase benefits.
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The USDA has insisted that data drove these changes and that complying with the farm bill’s requirements made them essential.
Without further action by Congress, future administrations will revisit the Thrifty Food Plan every five years and may again use it to adjust the amount of SNAP benefits.
Tracy Roof does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.