White House announces major increase in food stamp benefits

The Biden administration yesterday unveiled a major permanent increase to the food stamp benefits that help 42 million Americans buy groceries — a record bump up for one of the country’s largest safety net programs.

The average monthly benefits for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program will be roughly 27 percent higher than they were before the pandemic, starting Oct. 1, according to an administration official. That comes out to an increase of about 40 cents per meal.

The change comes right as millions of households were set to face a benefits cliff, as the current 15 percent pandemic plus-up that Congress authorized at the end of last year is set to expire Sept. 30.

What’s new: The Biden administration is increasing the benefits by updating what’s known as the Thrifty Food Plan, the Agriculture Department’s calculation for what it costs to buy a nutritious diet with minimal resources. The plan is used to set the maximum benefit level for SNAP.

In the last farm bill, Congress asked USDA to update the plan by 2022, and then every five years after that to keep it current. The administration expedited the process to get ahead of the benefits cliff next month.

On Monday, USDA will outline exactly how it concluded that benefits should increase. One important change: The formula will take into account convenience foods like chopped frozen vegetables, bagged salads and canned beans, which are much more common now than when the plan was last updated in 2006.

The average monthly benefit will go from about $121 per person, pre-pandemic, to about $157 per person, per the administration official.

The big shift: The fact that the Biden administration is permanently increasing benefits for millions of Americans marks a monumental shift for the program, which has for years sparked partisan battles over the role and size of government. The move does not require congressional approval.

During the Trump administration, USDA sought to limit access to benefits and impose stiffer work requirements on able-bodied adults without dependents. House Republicans fought bitterly to impose more work requirements in the last farm bill, though the Senate ultimately disagreed and the program was kept as is.

In 2019, SNAP participation had dropped to roughly 36 million people, down from a peak of more than 47 million participants in 2013, when the country was slowly recovering from the Great Recession. The overall cost of the program had dropped to just over $60 billion per year before the pandemic hit.

The program, which is designed to expand and contract with the economy, has ballooned during the current crisis. As of May, there were about 42 million people receiving aid.

Costs have surged to closer to $100 billion, both due to a large increase in individuals qualifying for the help and significant increases in benefits that were initiated in part by the Trump administration during the first year of the pandemic, and more recently by the Biden administration and by Congress through aid legislation.

Republicans raised concerns about Biden’s move to increase benefits ahead of the announcement Monday.

Late last week, House and Senate Agriculture Committee ranking members G.T. Thompson and John Boozman called on the Government Accountability Office to review the Biden administration’s process for updating the plan that underpins how benefits are calculated.

Republican staff on Capitol Hill have been asking USDA questions about the update for months, but have expressed frustration with what they view as a lack of transparency about the review.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Friday defended the administration’s process.

“As directed by the 2018 Farm Bill passed by a Republican-led Congress, the Department of Agriculture conducted a scientifically rigorous and data-driven review of the Thrifty Food Plan,” Vilsack said in a statement to POLITICO. “We will release the results of that review soon and will be prepared to brief members of Congress interested in the results.”