EDITORIAL: Increase in food stamp benefits will help struggling individuals, families
This editorial was originally published in the Observer-Reporter
August 21, 2021
Organizations dedicated to fighting hunger, community activists and religious groups occasionally sponsor food stamp challenges. Basically, they have people who otherwise have no problem putting meals on the table try to get by for a week on the equivalent dollar amount of what a food stamp recipient receives. Participants usually find out quickly that it’s awfully tough. They have to eat a lot of pasta or cheap foods that will fill them up, or maybe go without for a breakfast here or a lunch there.
It was mostly buried amid all the news about the coronavirus and Afghanistan, but earlier this week, the U.S. Agriculture Department announced that the 42 million Americans who receive food stamps will be getting an increase in their benefits. Starting in October, average monthly benefits will rise by $36, going from $121 per individual to $157. Overall, the average benefit will go up 27% from what they were before the coronavirus hit in March 2020. The change was made by the Biden administration in order to more realistically reflect the dietary needs of everyday Americans and the preparation time necessary for meals.
Of course, for folks who can leave grocery stores with a couple hundred dollars worth of groceries, a $36 monthly increase isn’t much. But every little bit will make a difference for recipients of food stamps, and make a dent in hunger and the health and social problems that arise from it.
Jamie Bussel, a senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, told The Washington Post, “Plain and simple, this is totally a game-changing moment. The changes have enormous potential to reduce, and potentially eliminate, child hunger and poverty in this country. This will reflect much more accurately what food actually costs in communities.”
Until now, the formula used to determine benefits was an outmoded one from the 1960s, that assumed that household had two parents in them, one of whom was not in the workforce and could stay at home and engage in the time-intensive work of preparing meals from inexpensive ingredients. The new formula acknowledges the reality that a family in 2021 is most likely to get staples like fruits and vegetables from cans rather than their own gardens, and that time to make meals is painfully limited, since many food stamp recipients work outside the home, frequently at more than one job, but still earn so little that food stamps are necessary.
Critics argue that food stamps are meant to supplement a food-buying budget, not be the whole basis of it, hence the program’s formal name, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). However, it’s estimated that about a third of households who receive the benefit rely on it entirely for food, and sometimes the amount they get runs out before the end of the month. Critics also say that increased benefits sap the will to work, but many recipients already do punch a clock, or they are hamstrung by transportation problems, they care for dependent family members, have felonies on their record that prevent them from getting employment that pays decently, or other issues. When benefits have been curtailed in the past, there’s been no evidence that it has increased employment.
At the outset of the pandemic, some prognosticators forecast that the pain and dislocation caused by COVID-19 would make America more empathetic. That remains to be seen. But if we are to start erasing our empathy deficit, increasing food stamp benefits is a good place to start.