WASHINGTON ― Millions of households are about to have less money for groceries thanks to the expiration of an extra benefit created during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program gives more than 20 million households a monthly allowance for food at grocery stores, with bigger benefits for people with lower incomes. The average monthly benefit for a family of three is around $586.
The first pandemic relief law Congress passed in 2020 allowed SNAP recipients to receive the maximum benefit for the number of people in a household ― $740 for a family of three this year.
More than 30 states and the District of Columbia still have the “emergency allotments” in place, but the extra benefit will go away starting in March. Some 16 million households will see their per-person benefit drop by around $82, according to the Food Research and Action Center, or FRAC, an anti-hunger advocacy group.
People who only qualify for the minimum SNAP benefit, such as older Americans receiving Social Security payments, will see their monthly allotment shrink from $281 to $23.
The program ― formerly known as food stamps ― is one of the federal government’s biggest income support policies. The lapse of the extra funds could reverberate through the economy as food budgets in affected households collectively drop $2.9 billion per month, according to FRAC’s estimate.
Ellen Vollinger, who directs FRAC’s advocacy efforts related to SNAP, called the coming cut a hunger cliff.
“It’s steep, it’s wide, and it’s precipitous,” Vollinger said. “The public probably doesn’t realize it until it hits.”
Congress created the extra benefits as part of the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act in March 2020. The original guidance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture told states that they could “bring all households up to the maximum benefit due to pandemic related economic conditions for up to 2 months.” Of course, the pandemic wound up lasting a lot longer.
The federal government is still operating under a pandemic emergency declaration, though the Biden administration announced this week that the emergency would end in May. The extra SNAP benefits are expiring before that because in December, Congress shifted the funds toward a permanent summer nutrition program for children who qualify for free or reduced-price school meals.
Lawmakers told HuffPost this week they knew the higher benefit had to expire sooner or later and regretted that it would be going away so suddenly. But Senate Agriculture Committee chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said the shift would ultimately be a good thing.
“The good news is that we were able to get bipartisan support at the end-of-the-year package to be able to take some of those funds to put into a permanent summer means program for children,” Stabenow said. “That’s going to feed 29 million children. And so given everything happening, that was a really good result to come out of all this.”
It’s not the first time millions SNAP recipients have seen a significant across-the-board reduction in benefits. In 2013, Congress used money allocated to boost benefits after the Great Recession in order to fund a school meals initiative. The resulting SNAP cut that November became a major story for local newspapers and TV stations after receiving little national attention.
The average per-person benefit fell by about $11 at the time ― much less than the reduction coming in March. But it was still enough of a hit to food budgets that the retailer Walmart, where a lot of SNAP recipients redeem their benefits, disclosed to investors that “the sales impact from the reduction in SNAP benefits that went into effect Nov. 1 is greater than we expected.”
This year’s cut comes amid a slowdown in consumer spending, still-high inflation and concerns among some economists about a possible recession around the corner.