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Biden orders boost in food benefits as part of economic response to COVID-19

Experts say food stamps directly help the economy because people spend them.

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Vehicles snake around the parking lot of a chapel belonging to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to pick up food from the Utah Food Bank in Taylorsville on Monday, April 13, 2020. The line continues on the street. The Utah Food Bank estimates they provided food to around 400 families at this location.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

President Joe Biden has signed executive orders targeting hunger and poverty during the pandemic.

He’s calling on the Department of Agriculture to raise by 15% the money that families with children who qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches have available to buy food while those children aren’t in school to be fed. And he would like to expand what was already an emergency increase in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly called food stamps or SNAP.

Agriculture department officials are also being asked to ensure the Thrifty Food Plan on which food stamp allocations are based takes into account current costs of providing a healthy diet.

Food insecurity is a growing crisis in the United States. Close to 30 million Americans reported they didn’t have enough food and were at risk of being hungry within the past week, Brian Deese, director of the National Economic Council, said during a recent White House briefing on the executive orders.

Federal anti-hunger efforts have two targets: providing assistance to struggling families and boosting the U.S. economy. The government’s Economic Research Service said in a 2019 report that because food stamp recipients spend their benefits promptly, the economy gets a boost of “cascading effects.” Its analysis found a $1.54 billion increase in gross domestic product for every $1 billion increase in supplemental nutrition program spending. It also estimated that such an increase generates $32 million more in income within American agriculture industries and supports the addition of 480 full-time jobs.

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A student holds a Utah-grown apple to eat in celebration of National Farm to School Month and National School Lunch Week at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Early COVID-19 response

Typically, Congress has set a maximum benefit for food stamps based on family size, but not all recipients receive the maximum because of individual financial situations, said Angela Rachidi, an American Enterprise Institute scholar specializing in poverty issues.

The Families First Act at the beginning of the pandemic in March authorized the U.S. Department of Agriculture to let states increase food program benefits to the maximum level for all recipients, said Rachidi. These “emergency allotments” created a question, though, about whether the intent really was capping the emergency allotment at the maximum level, since some recipients were already at that level and thus got no extra food assistance despite a growing crisis.

Congress subsequently raised all Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits by 15%. Biden’s executive order directs agriculture officials to revisit the interpretation of the Families First Act and provide emergency allotments above the maximum level, already now 15% higher than last March, and further bolstered by a cost of living increase in October, Rachidi told the Deseret News.

There are dueling interpretations the courts may have to settle. Some believe the act intended to increase the maximum itself by about 15%, while others say the goal was to see everyone got the existing maximum.

A cynical view, she noted, is the president’s order is a “symbolic gesture to make it look as though they’re trying to do something around food assistance.” That would only happen if the courts say the U.S. Department of Agriculture erred in not interpreting the measure as actually raising the ceiling on the maximum benefit.

The other nutrition-related facets of Biden executive orders:

  • Boost the dollar amount of benefits called Pandemic EBT (electronic benefit transfer) for families of school-age kids who are not in school but would qualify for reduced-price or free lunch if school was in session.
  • Ask the agriculture department to revisit the thrifty food plan, a set of assumptions for what constitutes nutritious meals and what that would cost. That calculation is the basis for benefit levels.

The 2018 farm bill called for updating the Thrifty Food Plan by 2022, Rachidi said.

Wrote Aimee Picchi for CBS News, “The plan assumes families have time to shop in multiple stores to find the lowest possible prices while also having the flexibility to prepare meals from scratch — both of which are unfeasible for many families, regardless of income. Women between the ages of 19 to 50 are budgeted a maximum of $38.50 a week for food under the Thrifty Food Plan, according to the nonprofit news site The Counter, which covers food issues.”

An accurate count?

Congress controls the purse strings on food assistance — including the pandemic-related relief and any change to the benefit calculation. So while the executive order asks for a review of what the food benefit should be, it won’t change without congressional action, Rachidi said.

Rachidi believes Americans don’t understand how much Congress has been doing to provide food assistance to at-risk and hungry families. The initial boost provided a real infusion of money into low-income households’ food budgets, she said. Then the pandemic electronic benefit transfer bolstered families, even if children were already being provided the meals they could have missed by not being in school through other resources, like sites where families can pick up food for students.

“There was a lot of duplication there,” she said. And increasing the maximum benefit in response to COVID-19 also put cash behind anti-hunger efforts.

Some experts, including Rachidi, question the accuracy of numbers of food-insecure households, given the increased anti-hunger efforts. But she also noted that some households don’t get food stamps or other assistance for which they qualify.

Other experts believe more people are hungry or food-insecure than show up in the counts.

Deese emphasized that the executive orders are not intended to take the place of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package Biden supports.