Pandemic-boosted SNAP benefits can ease the pain of inflation, so why are they ending?

A pandemic-era food assistance benefit is coming to an end on March 1, leaving millions of Americans worried about how to make up the difference as food prices continually rise.

A boost to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is expiring in 32 states, the District of Columbia, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands, affecting more than 40 million Americans.

This was initially created at the height of the pandemic in March of 2020. Congress passed a measure that provided households with $95 extra per month to spend on food. A study by the Urban Institute found that this boost helped keep 4.2 million Americans out of poverty.

Now, the benefit is ending at the same time grocery prices are going up. In January 2023 alone, the cost of food rose by 10%.

People who were previously just getting by financially and economically may now struggle to meet their monthly budgets because of inflation, explains Feeding America’s Chief Government Relations Officer, Vince Hall. “When you add the cost of heating, rent, fuel, healthcare, and other necessities, food is one of the first things that people end up cutting,” Hall said in a recent interview with the Washington Journal.

But that option isn’t realistic for many households, including Kanita’s. She’s a Michigan resident and a mother of six who considers her family “just getting by” with the help of additional SNAP benefits.

The emergency allotments actually helped Kanita maintain the rest of her family’s day-to-day living expenses. “Those extra benefits help provide food so that I can use my money for the other things that are also in place,” she said. That includes higher rent, gas prices and utility payments.

Kanita found that the extra benefits allowed her to buy “healthier alternatives” when grocery shopping. “You usually include in a vegetable, a starch and a meat in every meal,” she explained. “Sometimes, you don’t have those things because everything is expensive. And you need one of those items to go towards the next meal. Can’t afford to have them all together.”

It’s become cheaper for Kanita to feed her family with four slices of pizza that costs $10 than it is to shop for various ingredients for a six-person meal. “If you have to cook for five people, it’s easier to spend $10 on the pizza, and everybody gets to eat, versus having meat and nothing else with that same $10,” said Kanita.

Branden Snyder, who is the executive director of the nonprofit Detroit Action, explains that “decades of redlining, discrimination, and economic exploitation” of Black and Brown families have created longstanding racial disparities that put them at a severe disadvantage when cuts and elimination of benefits happen like this.

“The pandemic exacerbated these inequities and increased food insecurity among all working-class people, but especially Black and Latino families with children,” said Snyder. “Furthermore, we’re dealing with record high levels of inflation where people are paying almost double for grocery items such as staples like eggs and dairy.”

Over 20% of Detroit’s population is on SNAP in Michigan and receives assistance. Most of these recipients are employed but lack quality wages, “forcing them to juggle two or three gigs just to barely make ends meet,” said Snyder. “SNAP and WIC aren’t perfect substitutions to poverty and racism in America.”

To put it in context, 13% of Michigan’s population (1 in 7) relied on SNAP benefits last year. Nationwide, 12% of the population (1 in 8) rely on these benefits.

Snyder points out that programs like pandemic-era SNAP benefits function more as “band-aids” when what the U.S. really needs is an economic and racial reckoning to address the root causes of poverty and food insecurity:

“But until lawmakers pass strong policies that raise the minimum wage, hold greedy corporations accountable and ensure that housing is a public good to provide stability and safety to our communities, SNAP is a mutual aid tool that continues to keep working families of color above the poverty line.”

Naina Rao

Naina Rao

Naina Rao is Reckon's daily news reporter. She formerly worked at NPR producing for Morning Edition and the Culture Desk, and has experience covering Religion, Arts & Culture, and international news. Naina is fluent in Bahasa Indonesia, proficient in Malay, and is working on her Hindi.

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