May 17, 2023
Recently released national and state-by-state estimates of the degree to which the Supplemental Assistance Program (SNAP) is reaching residents with lower incomes are a helpful tool for assessing the program’s reach and gaps. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) SNAP Program Access Index (PAI) for 2021[i] indicates that on a national level SNAP is reaching over three in four (77 percent) residents who have incomes at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty line (FPL), an improvement over the 2019 PAI of 70 percent.[ii]
Some of the national improvements in SNAP performance may be associated with temporary improvements to policies and practices during the COVID-19 pandemic. Temporary pandemic-era measures and waivers included boosting SNAP benefits, suspending time limits on SNAP for unemployed and underemployed adults, easing SNAP eligibility rules for college students, and allowing SNAP state agencies greater procedural flexibilities, including on the necessity and frequency of SNAP interviews at initial application and recertification.[iii]
State SNAP PAI scores in 2021 ranged widely, with the five lowest–ranked states scoring under 53 percent. These states included Utah (41.3 percent), Kansas (46.2 percent), Idaho (46.6 percent), North Dakota (48.0 percent), and Arkansas (52.9 percent). Those states also fell within the bottom half of states in PAI improvement since 2019.
SNAP policies, enrollment procedures, and outreach are among factors that likely help explain PAI variation among states. For example, four of the five lowest–ranked PAI states have not opted to raise the SNAP gross income test from 130 percent of the federal poverty line, although the Categorical Eligibility policy gives them the option to raise that to 200 percent FPL[iv] By contrast, the five highest–ranked PAI states have higher SNAP gross income limits, with the District of Columbia, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Oregon setting their SNAP gross income limits at 200 percent FPL, and New Mexico at 165 percent FPL.
With the lapsing of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services COVID-19 Public Health Declaration on May 11, 2023, some of the policy options and practices states could use in 2021 are ending. In addition to the loss of SNAP Emergency Allotments after February 2023, time limits on certain unemployed and underemployed adults will return, as will the outdated SNAP rules that prevent many college students from getting SNAP.[v] USDA also has announced that some SNAP procedural waivers will be phased out.[vi]
In addition to states undertaking robust SNAP outreach efforts and using policy options such as higher gross income limits, which are effective in serving more people that have low incomes, USDA and Congress each have opportunities to learn from temporary pandemic–era SNAP measures that proved effective and to build on them to achieve further improvements in SNAP’s effectiveness.
State and Federal Action to Build on Improvements
Government leaders at all levels have opportunities to learn from temporary COVID-19 pandemic-era SNAP measures that proved effective and to build on them to achieve further improvements in SNAP’s effectiveness.
- States should undertake robust SNAP outreach efforts and using policy options such as higher gross income limits which are effective in serving more people that have low incomes.
- USDA has inherent waiver authority that it can tap to continue to grant states certain flexibilities in SNAP operations and enrollment procedures. In addition to granting demonstration waivers, USDA can grant regulatory waivers “when the specific regulatory provision cannot be implemented due to extraordinary temporary situations” or it “determines that the waiver would result in a more effective and efficient administration of the program.”[vii]
- Congress should enact pending proposals that would end SNAP time limits permanently (H.R. 1510), provide more equitable pathways to SNAP for college students (S. 1488/H.R. 3183), and make SNAP benefit amounts more adequate (S.1336/H.R. 3037)
Public opinion surveys indicate significant support for protecting and strengthening SNAP. In January 2023, seven in 10 of those surveyed agreed with the proposal to “[p]ermanently extend and expand pandemic-related changes to SNAP that increase benefits and lower barriers to participation:”[viii] A majority of voters polled in April 2022 favored continued suspension of SNAP time limits.[ix] In February 2023, YouGov reported that 67 percent of Americans have a favorable view of SNAP, and 40 percent of Americans think SNAP should get more funding.[x]
The American people are right. Hungry people can’t wait.
Join the Food Research & Action Center and urge your Members of Congress to cosponsor and pass H.R. 1510, S. 1336/H.R. 3037, S. 1488/H.R. 3183, and other priority bills on the Protect and Strengthen SNAP agenda.
[i] See “SNAP Program Access Index 2021,” USDA Food and Nutrition Service, https://fns-prod.azureedge.us/sites/default/files/resource-files/snap-pai-2021.pdf
[ii] See “SNAP Program Access Index,” USDA Food and Nutrition Service, May 10, 2023, https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/program-access-index
[iii] For background on COVID-19 era temporary changes in SNAP, see Andrew Cheyne and Ellen Vollinger, “A Strengthen SNAP Agenda to Address the Hunger Cliff—Part 1, FRAC Chat, Food Research & Action Center, Feb. 3, 2022, https://frac.org/blog/strengthen-snap-agenda-part-1
[iv] See “Broad-based Categorical Eligibility,” USDA Food and Nutrition Service, updated Jan. 2023, https://fns-prod.azureedge.us/sites/default/files/resource-files/BBCE-States-Chart-(Jan-2023)-508-1.5.23.pdf In addition to the gross income test that is required unless the household has a member aged 60 or over or who has a disability, SNAP also applies a net income test, which is set at 100% FPL. See “What are the SNAP income limits?” USDA Food and Nutrition Service, https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/recipient/eligibility
[v] See “Guidance for States Preparing for the end of the Public Health Emergency, USDA Food and Nutrition Service, https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/expiration-program-flexibilities-covid-19
[vi] See “SNAP—Expiration of Program Flexibilities for the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency,” USDA Food and Nutrition Service, Feb. 10, 2023, https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/expiration-program-flexibilities-covid-19
[vii] See Andrew Cheyne and Ellen Vollinger, “A Strengthen SNAP Agenda to Address the Hunger Cliff—Part 2, FRAC Chat, Food Research & Action Center, Mar. 15, 2022, https://frac.org/blog/strengthen-snap-agenda-part-2
[viii] See “Consumer Food Insights,” Purdue University Center for Food Demand Analysis and Sustainability, Jan. 2023, pages 14-15, https://ag.purdue.edu/cfdas/wp-content/uploads/2023/02/Report_202301-2.pdf
[ix] See “Just 3 in 10 Disabled Voters Believe Leaders in Washington, D.C. Care About People with Disabilities, Finds New TCF and Data for Progress Poll,” The Century Foundation, Apr. 21 2022, figure 4, https://tcf.org/content/commentary/just-3-in-10-disabled-voters-believe-leaders-in-washington-d-c-care-about-people-with-disabilities-finds-new-tcf-and-data-for-progress-poll/
[x] See Linley Sanders, “How Americans evaluate Social Security, Medicare, and six other entitlement programs,” YouGov, Feb. 8, 2023, https://today.yougov.com/topics/politics/articles-reports/2023/02/08/americans-evaluate-social-security-medicare-poll
[xi] See “Farm Bill: Congress Must Protect and Strengthen SNAP, TEFAP, and Other Anti-Hunger Programs,” Food Research & Action Center and Feeding America, May 2023, https://antihungerpolicyconference.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/05/2023-FarmBill_FNL_with-hyperlink.pdf