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Historic increase in food stamp benefits starts in October

By Tami Luhby, CNN

Food stamp recipients will see their monthly payments go up in October thanks to a major update to the program, even though a special pandemic boost has now expired.

Benefits will jump 27% above pre-pandemic levels, on average — the largest increase in its history. The change stems from a revision of the Thrifty Food Plan, which determines the benefit amounts of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, the formal name for food stamps.

The update comes as part of a US Department of Agriculture review of the food stamp program required under the 2018 Farm Bill. The then-Republican-led Congress ordered the agency to reevaluate the plan by fiscal 2022 — and every five years thereafter. It was last adjusted in 2006.

Under the revision, which is permanent, beneficiaries will see a $36 hike in average monthly benefits. They received $121 per person before the coronavirus pandemic.

Including the annual cost of living adjustment, which is based on food price inflation and kicks in every October, the average monthly benefit will jump to $169 per person, according to the agency.

However, recipients will actually receive more than that because one of Congress’ pandemic relief programs remains in effect in most states, even though the 15% boost ended on September 30. Lawmakers also raised enrollees’ monthly food stamp allotment to the maximum amount for their family size during the pandemic — a move President Joe Biden extended earlier this year to an additional 25 million people in very low-income households who originally didn’t receive the additional benefits.

Taking this into account, beneficiaries will receive $251 per person, on average. More than 42.3 million people were enrolled in the program in June, up from nearly 37 million in February 2020.

Long overdue

The adequacy of food stamp benefits has long been a question. Advocates for low-income Americans argue that the funds run out before the month is over. But conservative experts point out the program is designed to supplement a family’s food budget.

Left-leaning advocates have said for years that the Thrifty Food Plan, which was introduced in 1975, is outdated. It makes unrealistic assumptions about food affordability and availability today, as well as about the time families have to shop and prepare meals, they argue.

“We really haven’t revisited the underlying assumptions since the ’70s, which is a little bit horrifying given how different the way we eat, the price of foods, how families acquire and prepare foods,” said Elaine Waxman, senior fellow at the Urban Institute. “All of those things have changed so dramatically. So this is way overdue.”

The average cost of a meal in the US is $2.41 — 22% higher than maximum food stamp benefits, according to a recent Urban Institute report that Waxman co-authored. In 2020, the maximum benefit did not cover the cost of a modestly priced meal in 96% of US counties. The revision, however, will reduce that figure to an estimated 21% of counties.

Still, some advocates argue, more needs to be done.

“The Thrifty Food Plan is still really the bare minimum. What is the least amount of money that a family that is struggling would have to have spend to have a healthy diet?” said Lisa Davis, senior vice president at Share Our Strength, which seeks to end childhood hunger and poverty.

“It’s not generous by any means,” she added. “This is a really important towards SNAP benefit adequacy, but we’re not all the way there yet.”

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