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Biden quietly preparing for food stamp increase without Congress

Mike Dorning, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

The racial reckoning following the police killing of George Floyd further energized concern among Democrats, since food insecurity disproportionately hits Black, Hispanic and Native American children, along with the elderly and people with disabilities.

Advocates argue that the $22-a-day food budget USDA currently sets for a family of four is woefully inadequate and relies on outdated, unrealistic assumptions. The market basket assumes a family eats more than 5 pounds of beans a week, for example. And outside studies have found that the food plan requires spending about two hours a day preparing meals, largely from scratch, at a time the average American family spends just a half-hour on daily food preparation.

SNAP benefits are calculated on a sliding scale based on income and the number and age of people in a household. Recipients are expected to spend 30% of their net income on food, with food stamps making up the deficit from the USDA food budget. Benefits can only be used to purchase groceries.

More than a quarter of the households enrolled in SNAP exhaust their monthly benefits in the first week after issuance, and more than half do so by the second week, according to a 2011 USDA study.

The Obama administration considered changing the USDA food budget so seriously that the decision went all the way up to the president. But at a June 2015 Oval Office meeting with his top economic and domestic policy advisers, Obama ultimately decided not to tamper with the market basket, mindful that Republicans then controlled both houses of Congress, according to Furman.

“We made a pragmatic decision that it not only could be overridden by a Republican Congress, but they could put something worse in its place. So we decided not to poke the bear,” Furman said.

With Democrats now holding narrow majorities in the House and Senate, “the Republicans could put up a good fight, but at the end of the day I don’t think they could do anything to stop it,” said Mike Conaway, a former Republican House Agriculture Committee chairman who retired from Congress last year.

 

The U.S. has periodically reviewed the market basket, first established as the Economy Food Plan in 1961 and updated in 1975 as the Thrifty Food Plan, to adjust for changes in nutritional guidelines and food consumption patterns. The most recent review came in 2006. Yet the reviews were always constrained to keep costs constant.

This time, the review won’t be required to be cost-neutral, said Stacy Dean, a senior USDA official leading the review on behalf of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

“A core goal of the secretary is to assure nutrition security, not just food security,” Dean said. “We want to make sure the benefits we are providing really and truly can support a nutritious and healthy diet.”

Dean won’t commit to a timeline for finishing the review, but said it would “ideally” be done by summer. If so, she said, the updated market basket could be used to set benefits beginning Oct. 1, when they’re annually adjusted for inflation.

The Biden administration isn’t officially prejudging the outcome of the review, but officials have made clear they believe current benefit levels aren’t sufficient.

“It’s fair to say that the SNAP benefit is in many cases not adequate enough to provide the help and assistance that is needed,” Vilsack told an anti-hunger conference in March, describing the review. “I suspect that we’re going to find that the foundation of that program doesn’t meet the activities of normal American families today, and that may result in some adjustment in terms of the benefit."

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