All 17 million children who rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to access nutritious meals—nearly a quarter of all children in America—will receive additional assistance starting in October. This week, the Biden administration approved an historic expansion of the program, permanently raising benefit levels for the first time in more than 45 years. It is a long-overdue expansion and a critical step towards ending child poverty, advancing racial equity, and improving child well-being.
The increase comes from a series of updates to the Thrifty Food Plan—a list of foods used to determine the cost of a modest diet and set maximum SNAP benefit levels. Following the passage of the 2018 bipartisan Farm Bill in Congress, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reviewed and revised the Thrifty Food Plan to reflect current food costs, consumption patterns, and dietary guidelines. Apart from adjustments for inflation, this is the first time the value of the Thrifty Food Plan—and subsequently the value of SNAP benefits—has increased since 1975. The USDA was asked to finalize these updates by 2022, but President Biden expedited the process to expand SNAP before temporary pandemic boosts expired on September 30.
Under the new Thrifty Food Plan, SNAP benefits will increase 21 percent above pre-pandemic levels starting October 1, 2021. On average, a family of four will receive an additional $145 in monthly SNAP benefits. This amounts to an extra $4.79 per day.
This modest but meaningful boost will be transformative for children and families—and it is much-needed. Before the pandemic, SNAP benefits averaged just $1.40 a meal per person—far below what families need to put food on the table and feed their growing children. In fact, the majority of SNAP households exhausted their benefits within the first two weeks of the month and nearly half of families still experienced hunger because benefits were too low. Permanently raising SNAP benefits will begin to address these shortcomings, providing additional nutrition assistance and putting healthy food in reach for millions of families.
We applaud the Biden administration for advancing these reforms to modernize SNAP and we urge Congress to take additional steps to strengthen the program. Specifically, Congress must:
- Switch from the Thrifty Food Plan to the Low-Cost Food Plan for determining SNAP benefits. Updating the Thrifty Food Plan is a positive first step, but the Thrifty Food Plan remains the least generous of the USDA’s four food plans. It is primarily an emergency diet and should not serve as the basis for determining SNAP benefits. Congress should calculate SNAP benefits using the Low-Cost Food Plan instead of the Thrifty Food Plan, as outlined in the Closing the Meal Gap Act of 2021, to ensure children can afford and access a broader range of nutritious foods.
- Expand access to SNAP by raising eligibility up to at least 200 percent of the federal poverty line and eliminating arbitrary and racist work requirements, drug felony bans, and time limits on SNAP assistance.
- Reduce administrative burdens under SNAP by streamlining enrollment processes and requirements; investing in outreach, technology, and application assistance; allowing families to purchase food both at more locations and online; and lengthening recertification periods to ensure more families receive and retain benefits.
As Congress works to build back better, these and other improvements to SNAP must be included in the forthcoming reconciliation and farm bills. Healthy food should never be a luxury in the richest nation on earth.