Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits have been crucial in mitigating food hardship and stimulating economic activity during the COVID-19 crisis. 

A new report from the Urban Institute, however, documents that maximum SNAP benefit levels still fall short of the cost of low-income meals in 96 percent of all U.S. counties. Moreover, even with the 15 percent boost temporarily in place since January 2021, maximum SNAP benefits fall short of meal costs in 4 out of 10 counties. 

On a per person basis, according to the Urban Institute, the maximum monthly SNAP benefit allotment was $39.99 below the low-income meal cost. In the 20 counties with the greatest gaps between maximum SNAP allotments and low-income meal costs, the shortfalls ranged from 64 percent to 213 percent. With the 15 percent benefit increase in place, maximum overall SNAP allotments were 13 cents below per meal costs, and were $1.73 below per meal costs in New York City.

The Urban Institute’s findings come on the heels of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s report that the cost of food is the greatest hurdle to healthy eating while on SNAP. For quite some time, researchers have pointed to flaws in the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP), which is the basis for SNAP benefit calculations. Accordingly, in assessing the costs of a basic diet, the MIT Living Wage Calculator assumes the price of the Low Cost Food Plan, which is the government’s market basket that is one step up from the TFP. 

More adequate SNAP benefits have been shown to have positive impacts on health and well-being. In addition, SNAP benefits matter for the economy. A new interactive tool from the National Grocers Association provides estimates on SNAP’s impacts on economic output, jobs, wages, and enhanced tax revenues for the nation, all states, and every congressional district. 

With the 15 percent boost in SNAP benefits due to sunset after September 30, 2021, policymakers should act now to avert an impending “hunger cliff,” and address SNAP benefit adequacy. 

Policymakers should 

  • extend the 15 percent SNAP boost beyond September and until sufficient economic recovery has taken hold; 
  • permanently boost SNAP benefits by enacting the Closing the Meal Gap Act to substitute the Low Cost Food Plan for the TFP as the basis for SNAP benefits; and 
  • take administrative action to bring the TFP in line with modern assessments of the costs of a basic diet in the U.S. 

The stakes are great, but the remedies are clear. The clock is ticking. Join FRAC in urging policymakers to #BoostSNAPNow. Hungry Americans can’t wait.