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SNAP boosts kept millions out of poverty during Covid. Now they’re gone.

Supplements to the program ended on March 1. Without an off-ramp, people are scrambling to fill the gap.

Stacked cardboard boxes labeled “Food Bank of the Rockies.”
Volunteers sort food at Tri-City Baptist Food Bank in Westminster, Colorado, on Tuesday, February 28, 2023.
Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post
Ellen Ioanes covers breaking and general assignment news as the weekend reporter at Vox. She previously worked at Business Insider covering the military and global conflicts.

While food prices remain stubbornly high due to inflation, a program expansion that has served as a life raft since the early days of the pandemic has ended, leaving people scrambling to fill the gap left behind. The program, which had increased benefits offered under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), helped millions avoid serious food insecurity despite pandemic-related job cuts, school closures, and other crises.

SNAP boosts ended Wednesday as part of the government’s wind-down of Covid-19 federal assistance programs, returning benefits close to levels seen near the start of the pandemic. At 6.4 percent, inflation is still high, affecting the most basic necessities.

On a federal level, many pandemic-era emergency assistance programs have already expired, such as extended unemployment benefits. But other crucial programs, including the SNAP extension and a Medicaid expansion to insure vulnerable people throughout the pandemic, have continued.

Some states had already closed the SNAP emergency allotment program, but until Wednesday it was still operational in 32 states, as well as Washington, DC, Guam, and the US Virgin Islands.

The Biden administration agreed to give two months’ notice regarding the end of federal pandemic-related programs; Congress ended the SNAP emergency allotments at the end of February as part of the budget bill passed in December. Though other programs, including a commitment to continue a summer meal subsidy program for school children, will continue, vulnerable people including the elderly and disabled may not have that kind of additional support.

Food prices remain high even as some costs like rent are coming down. Global inflation and other factors have pushed up the price of what were once low-cost, nutrient-dense basics like eggs. So although other budgetary pressures will ease, food prices, even for nutritious staples, will consume a large part of SNAP recipients’ income.

In recent months, the SNAP supplements provided an additional $3 billion per month in assistance for recipient households, according to a February report from the Center for Budget Policy and Priorities (CBPP). But the abrupt end to the benefits program means that states didn’t have the time to help beneficiaries ensure they receive the maximum allowable benefit by properly documenting other expenses like housing and medical costs — or to help them figure out alternatives.

“When we talk about the vulnerabilities of low-income individuals and families, everything affects them, from a high, rising cost of food to high housing costs, to utility costs — it’s all relative, and it all concentrates and impacts them,” Brittany Mangini, associate commissioner of food security and nutritional programs at the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance, told Vox in an interview.

Here’s how the program worked — and who it helped

SNAP is a complex, nuanced federal program, but in essence, the pandemic extension passed under President Joe Biden in April 2021 automatically granted all recipients at least an additional $95 per month in benefits. As of March 1, SNAP benefits went back almost to pre-pandemic levels, meaning that all households are losing that additional $95 per month — and many households are losing much more than that.

A 2022 study by the Urban Institute found that Black and Latinx households benefited most significantly from the additional SNAP allotments, and that the emergency allotments kept 4.2 million people out of poverty in the fourth quarter of 2021. That study also found that the increased benefits reduced child poverty by 14 percent.

The relatively sudden policy shift “will increase food hardship for many individuals and families, given the modest amount of basic SNAP benefits and high recent inflation in food prices,” according to the CBPP.

SNAP is calculated based on a household’s income — the less a household makes, the more benefits the government provides, making up the difference between whatever the household budget is for food and the maximum benefit allowed under SNAP. The goal of SNAP is to help recipients provide nutritionally sound food for their households, particularly in times of sudden economic hardship.

SNAP is the largest federal food assistance program, but the other major federal funding program for nutrition assistance is the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), but as the name implies, that program has strict guidelines about who qualifies to use it. There is also federal nutrition assistance for vulnerable populations like the elderly, but SNAP is the most comprehensive program because it’s not limited to certain groups.

SNAP is not a perfect program; the welfare system can be hard to navigate, and the program does place limits on what beneficiaries can buy. But SNAP does help tens of millions of Americans feed their families each month. The government has also made improvements to the program, such as adjusting the Thrifty Food Plan — the rubric used to determine a nutritionally adequate diet for a family of four — to better meet modern costs of living and provide more appropriate benefits to SNAP recipients. Still, according to the CBPP, SNAP benefits will only equal about $6.10 per person per day in 2023.

Other nutrition assistance programs have to go through community organizations or are reimbursements for expenses already paid; SNAP allows beneficiaries a measure of control over their diets and shopping, as well as dignity and privacy. It functions essentially like an electronic transfer to a bank account; the program instituted debit cards for beneficiaries in 2004, and SNAP recipients can now use their benefits to access grocery delivery.

Many SNAP recipients will have much less latitude in their shopping, not just because of the decrease in benefits, but also because inflation remains so high, even for basic products like eggs. As Vox’s Emily Stewart wrote in January, “While the bird flu is the primary cause in the current surge in egg prices, there are other factors in play, too — factors that have dogged the egg market and the broader economy for months now. Inflation appears to be cooling in some areas, but it’s still high, and a lot of things are more expensive.”

In fact, January’s inflation numbers showed that inflation for groceries actually increased, with the costs of food that people reported buying to eat at home increasing by 11.3 percent over the same reported measure in January 2022.

“Just like with all the other items in the grocery store, there’s all this inflationary pressure, with interest rates, with oil, with feed prices, with raw materials, with packaging, cartoning, transportation. You have labor issues and costs associated with labor,” Brian Moscogiuri, a global trade strategist at Eggs Unlimited, told Stewart in January. Everything in the supply chain, from fuel to labor costs, affects the price of the food people pick up in the grocery store.

Creating an “off-ramp” for additional SNAP benefits

Though the Biden administration did give the requisite 60 days’ notice before the end of the SNAP extension program, it will still be an abrupt end to a very useful — even critical— cushion for millions of households.

The end of the SNAP supplemental assistance came as part of a negotiation over December’s federal budget bill; in order to pay for a Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) program to provide meals for children when they’re out of school, a bipartisan committee agreed to shut down the SNAP supplement at the beginning of March.

It’s too soon to tell how severe the impact of this policy change will be, but all SNAP recipients in the states and territories ending the policy will be affected — around 30 million people.

In Massachusetts, Gov. Maura Healey’s administration has proposed a supplemental budget to fund the additional SNAP benefits at 40 percent — an “off-ramp” to the pandemic policy, Mangini said.

“What’s difficult for these families and individuals is they started getting this benefit back in March 2020, so we’re talking about three years that they’ve had this extra money coming in and people adjust their household budgets accordingly,” she told Vox. “So when you have an abrupt end to an extra income source at a time when we’re looking at incredibly high costs of food, for all the myriad reasons that are informing inflation, it’s just really impactful and stressful on households.”

The program, should the governor’s budget pass the Massachusetts legislature, will continue the structure of the federal supplemental assistance program at the reduced 40 percent level. “As far as I know, no other state is taking this step,” Mangini said.

Erin McAleer, the head of Massachusetts nonprofit Project Bread, told Boston’s WBUR that her group could only serve about 10 percent of the people benefiting from the extra SNAP funds. Project Bread works with Mangini’s office on food security issues and is pushing the Massachusetts legislature to pass the governor’s supplemental budget.

Given that troubling estimate, it’s not difficult to imagine that, as Ellen Vollinger, SNAP director at the Food Research & Action Center, told CBS News, a “hunger cliff is coming to the vast majority of states.”

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