March 26, 2021
It has been one year since the COVID-19 pandemic caused extraordinary disruptions to life in the United States. The public health and economic fallout from the pandemic has been widespread, and also has exposed long-standing disparities and inequities in access to health care, education, employment, housing, and food.
As the crisis unfolded, it did not take long for the nation to become painfully aware of the material hardships facing millions of Americans. Media reports showed images of long lines at local food banks and told stories about people — often for the first time in their lives — struggling to put food on the table. Data confirmed that these media reports were not isolated events, but rather reflected skyrocketing, alarming, and disproportionate rates of food insecurity across the nation as a result of the pandemic.
In order to address the various challenges facing the nation, the federal government took a number of actions to provide relief for struggling families. One key action was leveraging and expanding federal nutrition resources, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
As demonstrated during the recession of 2008 and numerous natural disasters, SNAP is among the most effective government responses when the economy is in trouble or people desperately need food. The entitlement structure of SNAP allows the program to respond quickly and significantly in times of crisis. Research also shows that the program supports local economic activity, alleviates food insecurity and poverty, and improves health and well-being.
A number of legislative and executive actions have increased SNAP benefit allotments and program access during the COVID-19 public health emergency. Key legislative provisions include
- allowing states to request authority from USDA to provide temporary, emergency SNAP benefits to SNAP households (enacted March 2020 and as implemented by the Trump administration, brought households up to the SNAP maximum allotment; as implemented by the Biden Administration, also will provide extra payments to SNAP households already at the maximum benefit level)
- extending the 15 percent boost to SNAP benefits through September 30, 2021 (first enacted in December 2020 and extended in March 2021);
- suspending time limits on SNAP eligibility for unemployed and underemployed individuals (enacted March 2020);
- extending SNAP eligibility to two groups of college students, i.e., those enrolled at least half time in higher education who are eligible for federal or state work-study or have an “Expected Family Contribution” of $0 (enacted December 2020);
- providing flexibility for SNAP application procedures and rules (enacted March 2020 and October 2020);
- providing extra administrative funds to states (enacted December 2020 and March 2021); and
- supplying additional funding to expand access to SNAP online purchasing (enacted March 2021).
The current hunger crisis in the nation would be far worse without SNAP and these efforts to expand program eligibility and benefits. Nearly 43 million people participated in SNAP in September 2020, on average, compared to nearly 38 million in September 2019. In addition, SNAP and Disaster-SNAP (D-SNAP) have been responsive in multiple areas of the country recovering from natural disasters in the midst of the pandemic.
While SNAP has been incredibly important to millions of Americans, rates of food insecurity are still too high in the U.S. and more work is needed as the crisis continues and the nation works towards a full economic recovery (e.g., addressing root causes of hunger, increasing the minimum wage).
Advocates and policymakers also need to consider and mitigate any negative impacts from SNAP benefit loss or reductions when temporary program eligibility expansions and benefit boosts expire. According to the Urban Institute, food insecurity rates increased after temporary unemployment benefit boosts ended in July 2020. A recent Health Affairs study drew similar conclusions for food insufficiency.
In addition, prior studies show that SNAP benefit loss or reduction is harmful to health and well-being, especially among households with children. Efforts already are underway to make permanent some of the temporary COVID-19 provisions outlined above, including eliminating time limits on SNAP eligibility and ensuring more equitable access to SNAP for college students. Additional strategies and program changes may be necessary to prevent disruptions in household food access when temporary SNAP provisions expire.
FRAC will continue to work with our partners and policymakers to build on SNAP’s strengths and responsiveness during the pandemic, and to pursue permanent changes to the program that will enhance SNAP’s reach and effectiveness.
Learn more about FRAC’s COVID-19 resources here.