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Americans face hunger crisis that is ‘catastrophic beyond imagination’ as SNAP benefits are harder for some to get

April 3, 2020, 12:30 PM UTC

In the middle of the stock market boom in 2018, as unemployment hit 50-year lows, there were 37 million Americans, including 11 million children, living in food-insecure households. 

Since COVID-19 stormed the U.S., tens of thousands of senior centers that provide pantry items and hot meals to elderly citizens have closed, and jobless claims jumped from 282,000 two weeks ago to 6.6 million Thursday, the largest increase in American history. 

“I don’t think the vast majority of Americans have a clue about the severity of the hunger crisis we’re entering into now,” says Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America. “This is just catastrophic beyond imagination on so many levels.”

There are now at least 10 million recently unemployed Americans living without a steady paycheck, a figure not seen since the Great Depression. Unemployment websites and phone lines have been hit with a deluge of activity, which they were poorly prepared for. Benefits for many have been rendered inaccessible as a flood of new applicants attempt to figure out how to make do without any income. 

Food assistance programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), which are thought to be some of the most effective programs in lifting Americans out of poverty and decreasing unemployment numbers, will also soon be overwhelmed. In New York City alone, applications to SNAP (often referred to as food stamps) increased from 6,000 per day two weeks ago to 16,000 each day this week, says Berg.

SNAP benefits are currently available to families that make less than 30% above the U.S. federal poverty line ($26,200 for a family of four) and have less than $2,250 in savings. 

SNAP, like Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security, is an appropriated entitlement program, which means that anyone who is eligible will receive benefits, but that there is no permanent direct funding. The regular appropriation for the program has already been capped, and so Congress authorized another $15.6 billion to cover the rise in caseloads as part of the $2 trillion stimulus bill passed last week. The program is countercyclical, which means enrollment is expected to increase during bad times and then decrease again once the economy recovers, so the one-time funding increase is necessary.

Anti-hunger advocates and some congressional leaders, however, argue that just expanding the spending cap is not enough, and there needs to be extra money added to the monthly program allotments as well as funding to help states deal with infrastructure issues that arise due to an increase in caseloads. 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer pushed for the inclusion of a 15% rise in the maximum allotment of SNAP, which would cost about $5 billion and amount to another $25 per person per month or $100 for a family of four. The current maximum allotment is $646 per month for a family of four. The measure was denied by Senate Republicans and did not make it into the final bill.

“When you think about it rationally, I don’t see a legitimate reason why anyone wouldn’t think it’s a good idea to extend SNAP benefits especially when it was done before, and we saw that it had a significant impact on the economy and allowed people to get what they needed while they were having a hard time,” said Alexandra Cawthorne Gaines, vice president of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress.

During the 2008 recession, Congress increased minimum SNAP benefits by 14%, and subsequent research found that it was one of the most effective investments made during that period. Every dollar increase in SNAP generates about $1.74 in economic activity, and a United States Department of Agriculture report found that an increase in SNAP benefits was closely linked to a decrease in the unemployment rate.  

Advocates are still hoping for increased provisions in what will likely be a fourth stimulus bill. “My hope is that Republicans in Congress get on the stick and support the Democrats’ attempts to dramatically increase food aid…The same way they came around on some of these other things like paid sick leave and expanded unemployment insurance and cash checks,” said Berg. 

Berg also noted a large increase in people registering to use soup kitchens and food pantries for the first time in New York City, but a smaller jump in actual attendance. “The poor generally have some stuff in their pantry, but that’s going to go pretty darn quickly, and so with each passing week that this happens, the worse it’s going to get,” he said.

Donations will also eventually dry up. “In general there’s an outpouring of private charity in the beginning, but then people worry about their own families and other things,” he explained. Citymeals on Wheels, a New York–based organization that supplies meals to the homebound and elderly, has already reported a significant shortage in its reserve of emergency meals

But even if kitchens manage to stay open, “there’s no way all the private charity on the planet is going to do anything near what we need,” said Berg. “My biggest worry is the vast disconnect between the extent of the problem and the response from the federal government.” 

The lack of action also comes after years of a steady rollback of SNAP and other welfare benefits by the Trump administration. “This administration has spent quite a bit of time making it more difficult to access SNAP for people who really need it,” said Gaines. 

Until recently, the President and Republicans were actively fighting to remove 700,000 unemployed Americans from the food stamp rolls by April 1. The change would have required all able-bodied adults without children to work at least 20 hours in order to receive benefits after three months. A federal judge issued an injunction blocking the Trump administration from acting on the change, and Congress also blocked the bill in its second stimulus package, which the President signed off on. Still, the Trump administration is actively appealing the court ruling, which Berg called ironic. “God knows how much money and scarce Justice Department time is going into fighting that right now,” he said. 

The Trump administration also recently put into effect a public charge rule that makes it more difficult for immigrants to apply for SNAP and other welfare programs. Under the rule, which was initially blocked by the courts but allowed to continue by a Supreme Court decision of 5-4, immigrants will have more trouble becoming permanent residents or citizens if they rely on such programs. 

When the USDA was asked whether it would continue to limit access to SNAP after the public health crisis ended, representatives said that its first priority was making sure people receive the help they need during the pandemic but suggested it would still stick with its previous timeline.

Republicans approved an earlier stimulus bill in March that would allow states to request special approval from the USDA to provide emergency benefits to households already registered for SNAP worth their maximum monthly allotment. The bill also provided $500 million to WIC and $400 million to the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) for food banks.

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Tuesday that he would not actively consider more legislative aid at the moment, which would include more money for SNAP programs. “I’m not going to allow this to be an opportunity for the Democrats to achieve unrelated policy items that they would not otherwise be able to pass,” he told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt.

Congress has increased unemployment benefits enough to make any additions to the SNAP program moot, said Robert Rector, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “If we’ve learned [anything] in the last three weeks [it] is that Congress is not good at making these decisions because through their unemployment system they have made it economically irrational for about half of the labor force to work and now they want to throw more money on top of that,” he said.

Rector argued that more benefits encourage workers to file and live off unemployment instead of seeking work. “We’ve basically made it so that at least half of the workforce is now better off financially not working than they were before…We have absolutely no idea what we’re doing.”

Many studies show that welfare benefits do not stop people from working, and most working-age SNAP recipients work.

Meanwhile, hunger advocates continue to ring the alarm. “I could see a world where there’s a population of people who live in food deserts where systems are stretched thin in terms of food banks and pantries and they’re not able to easily access food, so you see this potential dire situation for those folks,” said Gaines. “The canaries in the coal mine are always low-income people in this country, so you could certainly see a situation in which you have people who are actively starving.”

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