Feb 15, 2023 - Politics & Policy

The fight over ending COVID food benefits

Illustration of a bag of groceries and money.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Expanded SNAP benefits that were granted during the pandemic are phasing out this month, leaving low-income households across the country up against escalating financial strain.

The big picture: Deepening congressional division over federal funding for nutrition programs means those households can't count on relief in the coming farm bill.

Driving the news: SNAP recipients in more than half the country will stop getting emergency allotments (EAs) after this month's payments, which added at least an additional $95 monthly in food spending per household.

  • The SNAP emergency benefits issued at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic were never meant to be permanent, but activists credit EAs and the child tax credit expansion, which expired at the end of 2021, with curbing extreme hunger in the U.S.
  • The highest reduction in poverty rates associated with EAs were among Black and Latino Americans, according to a 2022 report by the Urban Institute.

What we're watching: Thursday will see the first 2023 Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on the farm bill's nutrition title.

  • Rebecca Wolf, a food policy analyst at the NGO Food and Water Watch, tells Axios that SNAP funding will feature as "the really big, prominent fight coming up" in 2023 farm bill negotiations.
  • "Of course, we want to hold on to things like SNAP, and more money in SNAP," Wolf tells Axios.

What they're saying: "The farm bill is a big deal. If it goes the wrong way, you could increase hunger and nutritional insecurity dramatically, and that would be a horrific outcome here," Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), a senior member of the House Agriculture Committee, tells Axios.

  • "I'll tell you this ... if the farm bill screws with SNAP, in a way that disadvantages people who need the benefit, I will do everything I can to make sure we don't get a farm bill," says McGovern, who also co-chairs the House Hunger Caucus.

Meanwhile: Last week, five House Republicans — Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), Ralph Norman (R-S.C.), Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), Dan Bishop (R-N.C.) and Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) — sent a letter to President Biden urging him to issue tighter SNAP work requirements in advance of the coming debt limit fight.

Context: The SNAP program requires able-bodied adults to work or participate in a work or training program at least 20 hours per week, otherwise recipients are limited to three months of benefits every three years, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

  • It was a prerequisite that was suspended by Congress in response to the pandemic, but will return when the public emergency ends in May.
  • In the second half of fiscal year 2020, 33% of non-elderly adults without disabilities receiving SNAP were working, about 25% were working 20 or more hours, and about 8% were working full time, per USDA data obtained through the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
  • These estimates were higher for those living in households with children.

Of note: "There's a lot of talk about able-bodied adults without dependents and how we need to have more requirements or more hoops for these people to jump through," says McGovern, telling Axios that the "majority of people who can work on SNAP, actually do work."

  • "What a lot of people who advocate that don't realize is how complicated that population is. I mean, there are people who just graduated out of foster care. There are people dealing with mental health issues. There were returning service members who fought overseas, who are having a difficult time reintegrating into our communities."
  • "For some, they look at beating up on poor people as somehow politically advantageous, and I think that's a cruel thing and a rotten thing to do," McGovern tells Axios.

The other side: "Anyone receiving SNAP benefits who can work should be required to work, excluding seniors and the disabled," Gaetz tells Axios in a written statement.

  • "There is a special place in Hell for those who want poor people to stay poor. Government welfare never made anyone rich. Only hard work has," says Gaetz.

The bottom line: McGovern tells Axios that he thinks the expiring SNAP emergency allotments should be permanent, but he's "dealing with political reality."

  • "We're fighting multiple battles here," says McGovern. "If I had a magic wand, I would not reverse these increases. That's me."
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