Lost in this week’s headlines about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan was a historic expansion of a vital social safety net program. On Monday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced the first expansion of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, more commonly known as “food stamps”) in over 40 years, boosting the average monthly benefit to recipients from around $121 per month to $157 per month. The enhanced benefits are based on the Department’s reevaluation of the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP), a long-outdated model for estimating the minimum cost of groceries for a family of four. While the TFP had been adjusted for inflation since the 1970s, it had not kept up with modern dietary and economic changes prior to Monday’s announcement, resulting in SNAP benefits being 21 percent lower than the cost of a nutritious modern diet and more than three-quarters of recipients exhausting their monthly benefits in under two weeks. The new TFP model — which was mandated by the 2018 farm bill and a Biden executive order earlier this year — will take effect on October 1st and directly boost SNAP benefits by 25 percent for more than 42 million Americans.
This expansion, a positive move from Biden amid his reluctance to extend the eviction moratorium and concessions to corporate lobbyists on Covid safety rules, will be a crucial lifeline to millions of food-insecure Americans as Republican-controlled states rescind emergency SNAP benefits. Expanded benefits will also, as the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities noted, disproportionately benefit people of color and have a strongly positive impact on child poverty rates and health outcomes — a valuable complement to elements contained in Democrats’ social infrastructure reconciliation bill.
Biden’s expansion of food stamps is a marked reversal from the Trump years, when a so-called populist President sought to kick 3.1 million poor and working-class people off SNAP and institute draconian eligibility requirements (the late, great Michael Brooks wrote at the time of how Trump’s policy was the culmination of a 30-year bipartisan “War on the Poor”). It is also a dramatic step in the right direction for Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, whose failed previous stint at USDA and subsequent corporate lobbying career we’ve previously written about on this blog. As with other positive things Biden has done through the executive branch, this is a testament to the importance of progressive organizing around the administration’s hiring and use of executive policy-making power. As Bryce Covert documented at the New Republic, Biden’s pushes to expand the social safety net represent a reversal from the Clintonian days of “ending welfare as we know it,” and reflect progressive success in a decades-long intra-Democratic fight.
Predictably, this laudable move invited the usual griping from right-wing media. But Biden, Vilsack, and anyone with a brain should ignore these hacks and their petulant whining. Not only will these benefits make a direct, material difference for millions of Americans, but they are also broadly popular. The conservative view of America as an “entitlement nation” in need of austerity is a fringe one, with polling showing that large majorities of Americans oppose cuts to SNAP and support increasing benefits. Embracing this SNAP expansion and broader progressive reforms to the program is a winning (literal) kitchen-table political strategy.
At the same time, there are valid criticisms that Biden’s food stamps policy — while historic as the first SNAP expansion in nearly a half-century — doesn’t go far enough. As economist Richard Wolff noted, Biden’s SNAP expansion only raised SNAP benefits to around $5 per day per person, a dishearteningly low amount in a wealthy nation that spends billions annually on wars and corporate welfare. The rigorous means-testing, work-requirement, and bureaucratic hurdles of the program also often exclude those in need of help, leading New York State Senator Jabari Brisport to call for an end to means-testing food stamps this week.
At the very least, Biden must ensure that his administration is fully staffed — and with the right public interest-minded people — to properly implement this policy change. The Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) Agency, which is tasked with administering SNAP, still has several high-profile personnel vacancies over eight months into Biden’s Presidency. The most important vacant position is Under Secretary of Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, who is the head administrator of the agency. Biden has yet to name a nominee for this position, which requires Senate confirmation, but has made the welcome move of appointing former CBPP analyst and SNAP expansion proponent Stacy Dean as Deputy Under Secretary (a position that does not require Senate confirmation and can function as the Acting Under Secretary). Likewise, the number-three position of Administrator for Food and Nutrition Service lacks a full-time staff member, as do some leadership roles in the Regional Operations and Child Nutrition Program divisions. To ensure that SNAP recipients receive their expanded benefits and acting USDA staff aren’t stretched too thin, Biden must prioritize filling these positions and nominate an Under Secretary as soon as possible. To overcome Senate gridlock along the way, he can urge Senate Democrats to adopt procedural rule changes that my colleague Eleanor Eagan has argued will expedite the confirmation process.
It has been heartening to see Biden this week reject his decades-long penchant for austerity and war, but his progress on these issues remains far from complete. Progressives must continue pressuring him on all fronts to broadly expand a social safety net whose weaknesses have been on full display during the pandemic. An incremental increase in SNAP — while historically and materially significant — will not be enough on its own to reform a system rigged against the impoverished. Biden faces a stark choice for the rest of his presidency: pursue a bold executive agenda that can help millions lead more secure and fulfilling lives, or continue an unsustainable status quo.
As Tupac Shakur once put it, “they got money for wars, but can’t feed the poor”.