WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden's administration has approved a significant and permanent increase in the levels of food aid available to needy families — the largest single increase in the program's history.
Starting in October, average benefits for food stamps — officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — will rise more than 25 percent above pre-pandemic levels. The increased assistance will be available indefinitely to all 42 million SNAP beneficiaries.
The increase coincides with the end of a 15 percent boost in SNAP benefits that was ordered as a pandemic protection measure. That benefit expires at the end of September.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said that with the change, the U.S. “will do a better job of providing healthy food for low-income families.”
The aid boost is being packaged a major revision to the USDA's Thrifty Food Plan, which estimates the cost to purchase groceries for a family of four and guides the way the government calculates benefits. In practical terms, the average monthly per-person benefits for qualified recipients will rise from $121 to $157.
The increase is projected to cost an additional $20 billion per year, but it won't have to be approved by Congress. A farm law passed in 2018 by the then-GOP led Congress and signed by former President Donald Trump already directed the department to reassess the Thrifty Food Plan.
“Whether you're a Republican or a Democrat, I think there's a shared understanding of the importance of this program,” Vilsack said in a conference call with reporters.
The increase is part of a multi-pronged Biden administration effort to strengthen the country’s social safety net. Poverty and food security activists maintain that longstanding inadequacies were laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic, presenting an opportunity to make generational improvements that reach beyond the current public health crisis.
Activists say the previous levels of pre-pandemic SNAP assistance simply weren’t enough, forcing many households to choose cheaper, less nutritious options or simply go hungry as the funds ran low toward the end of the month.
Vilsack said the increased funding will allow families to “be able to make healthy choices” all month long.
The move was swiftly praised by food security and anti-poverty activists.
Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, called it “a huge victory in the fight against hunger and for the tens of millions of Americans facing food insecurity.”
The measure also drew praise from some Republicans.
"It will allow families to purchase nutritious foods, which is important to promote health and reduce diet-related chronic conditions,” said Ann Veneman, who served as agriculture secretary under former President George W. Bush, in a statement on behalf of the Bipartisan Policy Council.
The changes are not directly connected to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Vilsack said the crisis helped underscore the importance of the food assistance program.
“A lot of people who thought they'd never take part in the SNAP program found themselves in need,” he said. “The pandemic sort of shocked people out of the belief that this was a program for someone else.”