Covid-era SNAP boosts have saved millions from poverty. Now they’re gone.

While food prices remain stubbornly high due to inflation, a program extension that has served as a life raft since the early days of the pandemic has come to an end, leaving millions struggling to fill the gap created. The program, which offered increased benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), helped millions avoid serious food insecurity despite pandemic-related job cuts, school closures and other crises, ending the pandemic on Wednesday.

An additional pandemic-era nationwide SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) ended Wednesday as part of the government’s winding-up of state Covid-19 relief programs. The program, which has helped millions of people avoid serious food insecurity despite pandemic-related job cuts, school closures and other crises, is ending while inflation is still high, at 6.4 percent, affecting basic necessities.

At the federal level, many emergency aid programs have already expired during the pandemic, such as extended unemployment benefits. But other important programs like the SNAP expansion and a Medicaid expansion to cover vulnerable people during the pandemic have continued.

Some states had already suspended the SNAP emergency allocation program, but as of Wednesday it was still operational in 32 states, plus Washington, DC, Guam and the US Virgin Islands.

The Biden administration agreed to give two months’ notice of the end of federal pandemic-related programs; Congress ended SNAP emergency allocations in late February as part of the budget bill passed in December. Although other programs, including a commitment to continue a summer meal subsidy program for school children, continue, other vulnerable people, including the elderly and disabled, may not have this type of additional support.

Grocery prices remain high even as some expenses, such as rent, fall. Global inflation and other factors have pushed up the price of once-inexpensive, nutrient-dense staples like eggs. Although other budgetary burdens will ease, food prices, even for nutritious staples, will eat away at a large portion of SNAP recipients’ income.

According to a February report from the Center for Budget Policy and Priorities, the SNAP supplements have provided an additional $3 billion per month in support to recipient households in recent months. But the abrupt end to the benefits program means states haven’t had the time to help beneficiaries ensure they receive them the maximum allowable benefit by properly documenting other expenses such as housing and medical expenses – or to help them find alternatives.

“When we talk about the vulnerabilities of low-income individuals and families, it affects everything from high, rising food costs to high housing costs to utility costs – everything is relative, and everything focuses and influences them,” Brittany Mangini, Deputy Commissioner for Food security and nutrition programs at the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance, Vox said in an interview.

This is how the program worked – and who it helped

SNAP is a complex, nuanced federal program, but essentially the April 2021 pandemic extension passed under President Joe Biden automatically granted all recipients at least $95 per month in benefits. On March 1, SNAP benefits almost returned to pre-pandemic levels, meaning all households are losing that extra $95 a month — and many households are losing a lot more.

A 2022 Urban Institute study found that black and Hispanic households benefited the most from the additional SNAP allocations, and that the emergency allocations lifted 4.2 million people out of poverty in the fourth quarter of 2021. This study also found that the increased benefits reduced child poverty by 14 percent.

The relatively sudden policy change “will increase food shortages for many individuals and families, given the modest level of basic SNAP benefits and high recent food price inflation,” according to the CBPP.

SNAP is calculated based on a household’s income—the less a household earns, the more benefits the government provides, making up the difference between the household budget for food and the maximum benefit allowed under SNAP. SNAP’s goal is to help recipients provide nutritionally healthy food for their homes, especially during times of sudden economic hardship.

SNAP is the largest federal nutritional assistance program, but the other major federal funding program for nutritional assistance is the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), but as the name suggests, this program has strict guidelines about who qualifies to to use it. There’s also federal nutritional assistance for vulnerable populations like the elderly, but SNAP is the most comprehensive program because it’s not limited to specific groups.

SNAP is not a perfect program; The welfare system can be difficult to navigate, and the program places limits on what beneficiaries can buy. But SNAP helps tens of millions of Americans feed their families every month. The government has also improved the program, such as B. Adjusting the Thrifty Food Plan—the rubric used to determine a nutritionally appropriate diet for a family of four—to better meet modern living expenses and provide more appropriate benefits to SNAP recipients. However, according to the CBPP, SNAP benefits will only be about $6.10 per person per day in 2023.

Other food assistance programs must be through community organizations or are reimbursements for expenses already paid; SNAP allows beneficiaries a degree of control over their diet and purchases, as well as dignity and privacy. SNAP essentially works like an electronic transfer to a bank account; The program introduced beneficiary debit cards in 2004, and SNAP recipients can now use their benefits to gain access to grocery deliveries.

Many SNAP recipients will have much less leeway when shopping, not only because of declining benefits, but also because inflation remains so high even for basic items like eggs. As Vox’s Emily Stewart wrote in January: “While bird flu is the primary cause of the current surge in egg prices, other factors are also at play – factors that have dogged the egg market and the economy at large for months. inflation seems to be cooling off in some areas, but it’s still high, and a lot is more expensive.”

In fact, January inflation figures showed that food inflation has indeed risen, with the cost of food that people reported eating at home rising 11.3 percent from the same reported level in January 2022.

“Just like every other item in the grocery store, there’s all this inflationary pressure, with interest, with oil, with feed prices, with commodities, with packaging, cartoning, transportation. They have labor issues and associated costs,” Brian Moscogiuri, a global trade strategist at Eggs Unlimited, told Stewart in January. Everything in the supply chain, from fuel to labor costs, affects the price of the food people buy from the grocery store.

Creating an “off ramp” for additional SNAP benefits

Although the Biden administration has given the required 60-day grace period before the end of the SNAP extension program, it will still be an abrupt end to a very useful — even critical — cushion for millions of households.

The end of the SNAP supplemental aid came as part of a December federal budget law hearing; To fund a Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) program to provide meals for children when they are out of school over the summer, a bipartisan committee agreed to end the SNAP allowance in early March.

It’s too early to tell how severe the impact of this policy change will be, but all SNAP recipients in the states and territories that are ending the policy will be impacted — approximately 30 million people.

In Massachusetts, Gov. Maura Healey’s administration has proposed an additional budget to fund 40 percent of the additional SNAP benefits — an “exit” to pandemic policy, Mangini said.

“What is difficult for these families and individuals is that they are receiving this benefit as early as March 2020. So we’re talking three years of them getting that extra money and people adjusting their household budgets accordingly,” she told Vox. “So when you have an abrupt end to an additional source of income at a time when we’re facing incredibly high food costs, for all of the myriad reasons that drive inflation, it’s just very impactful and stressful on households.”

The program will continue the structure of the federal supplemental assistance program at the reduced level of 40 percent should the governor’s budget pass the Massachusetts legislature. “As far as I know, no other state is taking this step,” Mangini said.

Erin McAleer, the director of the Massachusetts nonprofit Project Bread, told Boston-based WBUR that her group can only serve about 10 percent of the people who will benefit from the additional SNAP funds. Project Bread works with Mangini’s office on food security issues and is urging the Massachusetts legislature to pass the governor’s supplementary budget.

Given that troubling estimate, it’s not hard to imagine that, as Ellen Vollinger, SNAP director at the Food Research & Action Center, told CBS News, “a hunger cliff is approaching the vast majority of states.”

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