WASHINGTON — Tens of millions of low-income families are set to lose additional food stamp benefits on Wednesday after the expiration of a pandemic-era policy that had increased the amount they received, leaving food banks bracing for a surge in demand and some advocates predicting a rise in hunger nationwide.
For nearly three years of the pandemic, emergency legislation enacted by Congress sought to cushion the economic blow of the coronavirus, allowing all participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to receive the maximum monthly benefit, regardless of income. The extra cash, along with other economic assistance programs, helped keep food insecurity at bay and cut poverty rates to a record low.
But that temporary increase lapses for more than 30 million people across 35 states and territories on Wednesday, effectively cutting benefits for the vast majority of recipients as inflation remains persistently high and many other coronavirus-era programs end.
“This is a cost shift from the federal government,” said Ellen Vollinger, the SNAP director at the nonprofit Food Research & Action Center. “It just shifts the burden of hunger onto states and counties, to the charitable sector, but of course, most harshly, it shifts the burden to that household to try to make do with even less.”
Under the pandemic-era policy, each recipient got a monthly average of $251. That is expected to decline by about a third, or $82, in March, according to the Agriculture Department, which administers the food stamp program.
Those who qualify for the minimum benefit under the standard income guidelines — many of whom are older Americans relying on Social Security — will see the steepest decrease, from $281 in monthly benefits to only $23, according to Ms. Vollinger.
Even though the extra benefits will lapse, food stamp benefits will remain more generous than three years earlier, because the Biden administration permanently increased benefits by 25 percent over prepandemic levels.
What is inflation? Inflation is a loss of purchasing power over time, meaning your dollar will not go as far tomorrow as it did today. It is typically expressed as the annual change in prices for everyday goods and services such as food, furniture, apparel, transportation and toys.
Moreover, 10.5 percent of Americans reported being food insecure in 2019, the lowest rate since 2000. Food insecurity rates were not statistically different in the three years of the extra SNAP benefits, leading some to question their efficacy.
Angela Rachidi, a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said she did not expect “the expiration to affect food insecurity rates much at all” and argued that warnings about a rise in hunger were exaggerated. She noted that in some states where the allotments had already ended, food insecurity rates appeared unchanged.
For some beneficiaries, the cuts may come as a surprise. The additional allotment is contingent upon both state and federal declarations of public health emergencies. But while the federal public health emergency will expire in May, the food stamp policy is ending two months earlier because of a deal Congress struck in December, leaving state governments and advocates to relay the changes.
Larechia Baldwin, 29, a single mother of a 5-year-old boy in Worcester, Mass., said she was worried about the end of the extra benefits. Her monthly allotment will decrease by over $100 in March, she estimated, the equivalent of losing a week’s worth of groceries. Adding to her financial headache, her monthly rent has increased by $200.
“How are you guys, professional people, want to do something to families that’s in this situation?” she said.
Already, Ms. Baldwin said food banks and pantries in her area were short on certain items. She expects to visit more frequently, but she said that navigating the hours and finding transportation would be an extra worry as she does not own a car and is recovering from a stroke.
To make ends meet, Ms. Baldwin will most likely forgo expensive favorites, Lunchables for her son and haddock fish for her. Even after tightening her budget, she anticipates running out of food by the end of the month.
The “hunger cliff” is imminent and the abrupt lapse in benefits will only exacerbate the situation, Ms. Vollinger said. “It is a very big problem, and it’s hitting pretty precipitously.”
“The hardship is going to end up falling on the households that are going to somehow try to figure out, as best as they can, what to do on an allotment that, on average, will now be down to $6 a person a day,” Ms. Vollinger added.
The loss of benefits is coming as the cost of groceries, housing and energy is sharply increasing, said Vince Hall, the chief government relations officer at Feeding America, a network of 200 food banks. The result is a “perfect storm,” he added. “Inflation is driving more people to need food banks, but inflation also makes it more difficult for food banks to meet that demand.”
A handful of food banks and pantries have struggled to keep up with demand, in some cases running out of food altogether, Mr. Hall said. That number is only expected to increase as the emergency allotments expire, setting the stage for what is almost certain to be a rise in hunger.
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“The majority of families on SNAP have children,” he said. “They have no clear pathway to solve for the termination of the emergency allotments. Children, senior citizens are not going to pick up extra hours at work or get a second job.”
The cuts are also likely to disproportionately affect vulnerable populations like Black and Latino families, older adults and the disabled, said Eric Mitchell, the president of the Alliance to End Hunger.
“A lot of folks, they’re not only worried about being able to put food on the table, but how they’re going to put food on the table, how they’re going to pay for rent, how to heat or cool their home, how to pay for child care,” he said.
The pandemic-era policy has already ended in 18 states, where food banks and SNAP recipients have reported increased hardship and food insecurity.
In Georgia, where emergency allotments ended in May, the Atlanta Community Food Bank said it was distributing as much food today as it did during the height of the pandemic.
Currently, the organization is serving about 600,000 people, or about one in every 10 residents in the Atlanta metro area. That is a 40 percent increase since 2021, according to Kyle Waide, the bank’s president and chief executive.
Cuts to SNAP benefits account for about half of the increase in demand, he said, attributing the rise to the end of other pandemic-era benefits, like the expanded child tax credit and universal free school meals.
The Atlanta food bank is currently spending about $2.5 million a month to buy food, more than it has ever spent since its founding in 1979, and tapping into reserve funds to cover the cost, Mr. Waide said.
“But that is not sustainable,” he added. Absent an increase in food and funding directly distributed to food banks by the federal government, his organization is “only a few months away from being faced with having to make tough choices about how we can continue to purchase at this level.”
Mr. Hall also warned of the wider ramifications of the policy change, noting that the decreased benefits will result in “almost $3 billion in food purchases disappearing from the American economy” every month.
“Thirty-two million people are going to lose significant grocery purchasing power,” he said. “This is a moment of serious crisis.”