In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, 23 million people lost their jobs and 29.6 million children lost access to free or reduced lunch as schools locked down. Families consequently became more reliant on food security programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP, with usage increasing by over 4 million recipients.
Congress acted quickly to ensure that individuals and families would have the food they needed by passing the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. The bill included temporary provisions that increased access to federal nutrition programs; strengthened food benefits for qualifying recipients; and increased flexibility for states, giving them more choice and decision-making authority.
While many of the provisions have expired, some were directly tied to the public health emergency first declared by the Department of Health and Human Services in January 2020 and renewed every 90 days since. The remaining provisions include emergency allotments for SNAP users, a waiver of the time limit for nonworking SNAP recipients, an extension of exemptions for college students to use SNAP, and other simplifications to ensure easy access to benefits during the pandemic.
Preparing for the Emergency to End
The Biden administration has announced that the public health emergency declaration will be extended past July 15, its current expiration date, and states will be given 60 days’ notice before it ends. Despite the extension, the administration is encouraging states to prepare for the end of the declaration.
Most states are still using emergency waivers to extend eligibility, flexibility and benefits for the SNAP and WIC programs. Sixteen states—Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee and Wyoming—have ended their waivers.
Tightening or eliminating waivers for SNAP and WIC likely will exacerbate food insecurity by reducing eligibility for the programs, eliminating the flexibilities in enrollment and removing the SNAP emergency allotments. The Food Research and Action Center has calculated that with the end of emergency allotments, 41 million SNAP recipients in the remaining states will lose an average of $82 in food benefits per month. Depending on income and household size, some families may see food benefits reduced by over $200 per month.
These changes to SNAP and WIC would come during a time when inflation is increasing food prices. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates food prices are about 10% higher than this time last year and will increase an additional 5% to 6% this year. The price increases are attributed to supply chain issues, increased shipping costs, the war in Ukraine and an outbreak of avian flu among poultry. Through the Thrifty Food Plan, SNAP benefits automatically increase as food costs rise; however, the benefits are indexed yearly, so current benefits are still based on food prices from June 2021.
Research has shown the end of the emergency allotments and other programs likely will increase reliance on food banks and the need for families to skip meals. Recent survey data from Providers, an app used by 5 million SNAP recipients, showed the experiences of recipients in states that removed emergency allotments were vastly different from those of recipients in states still using the waivers. SNAP recipients in states without emergency allotments were 13% more likely to be worried that their food would run out before they had money to get more, 5% more likely to have visited a food bank or skipped a meal, and 8% more likely to have spent at least $100 more on food than their SNAP benefits covered.
Security Through Legislation
Even before the pandemic, states have had flexibility to affect SNAP implementation through legislation. For example, states have enacted measures that adjust eligibility, simplify registration and incentivize certain food purchases. Many states have also chosen to create state hunger task forces, food bank support programs and other initiatives that help to alleviate hunger. As the end of the public health emergency approaches, states have an opportunity to strengthen food security for families through legislation.
To help legislators with this work, NCSL is hosting a webinar on June 23 on the SNAP Employment and Training Program, which is designed to help participants using food benefits develop job-related skills to achieve economic mobility.
Robbie Economou is the Emerson National Hunger Fellow in NCSL’s Children and Families Program.