The Biden administration is quietly laying the groundwork for a long-term increase in food aid for tens of millions of Americans, without going through the ordeal of a fight with congressional Republicans.
The instrument is an obscure U.S. Department of Agriculture shopping list used to determine food stamp benefits, known as the market basket.
A review of the so-called Thrifty Food Plan, ordered by Biden two days after he took office, could trigger an automatic increase in benefits as soon as Oct. 1, a day after expiration of a temporary 15% boost in food stamp payments that Biden included in his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package.
James Ziliak, director of the Center for Poverty Research at the University of Kentucky, said the re-evaluation “could result in an upward adjustment of 20% or more in the benefits.” That would amount to roughly a $136-a-month increase in the maximum benefit for a family of four, which was $680 before the temporary pandemic-related increase.
“This is really meaningful,” said Jason Furman, a Harvard Kennedy School of Government professor who was chairman of President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers. “It’s one of the bigger things government can do for poverty without Congress.”
The reappraisal culminates a years-long campaign by anti-hunger advocates to reassess the market basket. The value hasn’t been increased other than adjustments for inflation for six decades.
The move is emblematic of a broad commitment to anti-poverty programs across the Biden administration. Such initiatives were part of the Covid-relief package and included in Biden’s more recent proposals for infrastructure and social program spending. In April, the Agriculture Department extended a universal free school lunch program tied to pandemic relief through the entire 2021-22 school year.
It’s a sharp reversal from the Trump administration, which tried to limit eligibility for food aid, though the proposed restrictions were overturned by courts. Food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, once enjoyed broad bipartisan support. They’ve evolved into a partisan flashpoint in recent years, as conservatives fought to shrink the program. House Republicans tried to impose cuts in 2013 and 2018, the last two times the program was reauthorized as part of the five-year Farm Bill.
Biden often speaks of one of the most jarring images of pandemic-year economic collapse — cars lined up for miles outside food banks to wait for a box of groceries — and invoked it again in his first address to Congress as he explained the importance of anti-hunger initiatives in his vision for the country. “I didn’t ever think I’d see that in America,” he told millions watching at home.
The pandemic stirred public concern over hunger as seemingly secure middle- and working-class families suddenly became vulnerable. By December, one in seven U.S. households reported not having had enough to eat sometimes or often in the prior week, and in January 41.8 million Americans were on food stamps — 4.7 million, or 12.8%, more than a year earlier.