A statement by Robert Greenstein, Visiting Fellow, The Hamilton Project, Economic Studies, Brookings Institution
The Agriculture Department’s announcement that it is revising the food package on which benefit levels in the SNAP program (formerly known as food stamps) are based to reflect changes in food consumption patterns, research on diet and health, and nutrition guidance is a welcome development. This action will benefit millions of Americans and should lead to a healthier, more productive citizenry and workforce.
Evidence has been mounting for years that large numbers of SNAP beneficiaries run low or out of food by the end of the month. When the program was created in the 1960s, its benefit levels were tied to the cost of a monthly food plan so spartan that the plan was recommended for emergency use only. In the decades since, the benefit level has remained the same except for inflation adjustments even as key factors affecting low-income households’ food preparation and diets have changed and knowledge about diet and health has advanced markedly. Before the pandemic, the average SNAP benefit equaled only about $1.40 per person per meal.
There also is the “time factor.” The 1960s food plan was predicated on the belief that people with resources to purchase food costing the amount the food plan allows could buy large quantities of raw ingredients and spend many hours preparing meals mostly from scratch, an assumption that wasn’t realistic 50 years ago and is even more unrealistic today given changes since then in the labor market and women’s labor-force participation.
At long last, these issues are being addressed, and the food plan – and hence SNAP benefit levels -- will reflect modern nutrition science and current food consumption and price information. Congress merits applause for including in the bipartisan 2018 farm bill a directive to the Agriculture Department to re-evaluate and revise the food plan to reflect the latest knowledge and data. The Department has now fulfilled that mandate. Millions of Americans will be able to have healthier, more adequate diets as a consequence.