The Biden administration will give the biggest long-term increase in food stamp benefits in the program’s history, giving Americans more money to buy groceries and adding billions of dollars in costs to the government, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a call Monday.
Average benefits in October will go up by more than 25% from pre-pandemic levels for the 42 million people in the program, a U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity before Monday’s announcement.
The increase means that average monthly benefits will rise $36 per person from $121, according to the official. The New York Times reported the planned change earlier. The increase also means an approximate $20 billion cost increase per year for the program, Vilsack said.
“I think the pandemic sort of shocked people out of the belief that this is a program that was for some others, somebody else, I would never be involved in the SNAP program,” Vilsack said. “All the sudden we found families either in need of SNAP or in need of the food bank pantry system that never in a million years thought that they would be faced with that situation.”
Anti-hunger advocates have said the government subsidy is inadequate. The Agriculture Department is increasing the payments by revising the list of foods used to estimate the cost of a nutritious diet. Congressional approval isn’t needed for the change.
Without the Biden administration’s update in the formula, food stamps benefits would have dropped in October, with the Sept. 30 expiration of a temporary 15% boost provided by pandemic relief legislation. Now they will rise instead.
President Joe Biden has been seeking to increase government assistance to low-and middle-income Americans amid a pandemic in which many lost their jobs. Republicans have said Biden’s economic plan is fueling inflation and serves as a disincentive for people to work.
The move on food stamps is a reversal from the Trump administration, which tried to limit eligibility for food aid, though the proposed restrictions were overturned by courts.
Food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, once enjoyed broad bipartisan support. They’ve evolved into a partisan flashpoint in recent years, as conservatives fought to shrink the program. House Republicans tried to impose cuts in 2013 and 2018, the last two times the program was reauthorized as part of the five-year Farm Bill.
The instrument for the benefit increase is an obscure U.S. Department of Agriculture shopping list used to determine food stamp benefits, known as the Thrifty Food Plan. A provision in the 2018 Farm Bill called for an update of the market basket, and Biden ordered the department to proceed with the review two days after he took office.
The U.S. has periodically reviewed the market basket, first established as the Economy Food Plan in 1961 and updated in 1975 as the Thrifty Food Plan, to adjust for changes in nutritional guidelines and food consumption patterns. The most recent review was in 2006. Yet the prior reviews were always constrained to keep costs constant.
The 2018 Farm Bill, passed under Trump, imposed no cost constraint on the formula review.
Advocates argue that the $22-a-day food budget USDA currently sets for a family of four is woefully inadequate and relies on outdated, unrealistic assumptions.
The market basket assumes a family eats more than five pounds of beans a week, for example. And outside studies have found that the food plan requires spending about two hours a day preparing meals, largely from scratch, at a time the average American family spends just a half hour on daily food preparation.
The Biden review allowed benefit recipients 7% more calories, based on weight gains in the U.S. population and new exercise recommendations, the USDA official said. It also incorporates the latest government dietary standards, adding more red and orange vegetables and more seafood, such as canned tuna.
The review also factored in the amount of time it takes to cook meals. Consequently, recipients are assumed to mostly use canned beans rather than dried beans and use other convenience foods such as bagged lettuce.
Congressional Republicans signaled skepticism even before the results of the update became known. The top-ranking Republicans on the Senate and House Agriculture committees, which oversee the program, asked in advance for a General Accountability Office investigation of how the Biden administration conducted the review.
Food stamp benefits are calculated on a sliding scale based on income and the number and age of people in a household.
The new maximum benefit for a family of four will increase to $835 a month, a 21% increase from pre-pandemic levels. The average benefit will rise 27%, adjusted for inflation.
Recipients are expected to spend 30% of their net income on food, with food stamps making up the deficit from the USDA food budget. Benefits can only be used to purchase groceries.
More than a quarter of the households enrolled in SNAP exhaust their monthly benefits in the first week after issuance, and more than half do so by the second week, according to a 2011 USDA study.
There are assumptions on what families in the program will do and need over time, and “we need to modernize those assumptions based on what’s actually happening in kitchens and in homes across America,” Vilsack said.
—With assistance from Elizabeth Elkin.
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