As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress added emergency funds to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to help families facing food insecurity resulting from the economic slowdown. That emergency funding ran out at the end of February 2023. This means that around 30 million Americans will receive less money in their EBT cards at a time when inflation is wreaking havoc on food prices. The end of enhanced SNAP benefits is compounded by the concurrent end of other relief programs that helped with housing and healthcare costs.
Some states had already stopped the enhanced COVID benefits, but SNAP recipients in 32 states, Washington D.C., Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands will see their benefits reduced this month. The enhanced benefits gave participants the maximum allowable benefit if they qualified for SNAP. The change will bring participants back to amounts tied to household income and will average about $6 per day per person. The steepest decrease will hit individuals who, during COVID, qualified for the minimum SNAP benefit and were receiving $281 per month and will now only see a benefit of $23. Since the reductions are per person in the household, larger households will see bigger overall reductions. Seniors on Social Security may be surprised to learn that the recent 8.7% cost of living increase counts towards their SNAP eligibility and reduces benefits further. Sixty-five percent of SNAP participants are households with children and one in three food stamp households is headed by an African American. The reduction will, therefore, be disproportionately felt in low-income communities of color.
While the Biden administration is scheduled to declare the end of the COVID pandemic on May 11, 2023, the SNAP program expired on February 28th because Congress passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act which revamped that program. Many recipients, however, are unaware of, or don’t understand, the changes they’ll see in their March benefits. The different deadlines for the end of COVID era benefits add to the confusion. This will likely lead to families being caught off-guard by the reductions, leaving them scrambling to fill the hole in their food budgets.
A 2019 study found that families whose SNAP benefits were reduced or cut off were more likely to experience food, healthcare and energy insecurity. Affected individuals must now turn to state and county agencies and nonprofits to make ends meet. Some states, like New Jersey, passed legislation to increase state-level food assistance, but most have not. This will force most affected individuals to lean on food banks already struggling due to the recent inflation-fueled rise in food costs and lower-than-expected donations.
Ideally, the SNAP reductions would have been made more gradually. That said, some steps should be taken to reduce the impact. The Federal Government has an opportunity to address SNAP benefits in the upcoming Farm Bill, and states that have yet to pass legislation to fill the shortage can either address food insecurity directly or consider how reduced SNAP funds are affecting household budgets when discussing housing and healthcare subsidies. Hunger and poor nutrition don’t exist in isolation, and there will be increased societal costs if they aren’t mitigated.
The plight of hungry Americans isn’t always visible to those in a position to help. In addition to passing emergency funding, there needs to be increased awareness of the problem among Americans who may be able to donate to their local food banks and among businesses who can direct their 2023 charitable giving to non-profits tackling hunger.
State and federal agencies should also better communicate available services to people in need through outdoor, online, radio and television PSAs. There is a silver lining in that the Consolidated Appropriations Act added funds for summer nutrition to the National School Lunch Program. Vulnerable kids will at least be able to rely on those meals. Ideally, seniors and others affected will also get the help they need.