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More states forgoing extra federal food aid

More than 18 million Americans sometimes didn’t have enough to eat last month, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. More than 5 million people often went hungry.

Those numbers would have been higher if millions of families hadn’t received extra food aid through a pandemic-related expansion of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps.

But at least 16 states now have opted out of providing the emergency allotments, with Republican leaders in some of those states arguing that the extra food aid and other pandemic-related help are contributing to worker shortages across the country.

In 2018, the most recent year for which numbers are available, three-quarters of households receiving SNAP benefits had at least one person working, according to the Census Bureau. And some researchers have long argued that while Medicaid and other welfare programs might include disincentives to work, SNAP does not.

But one of those researchers, Baylor University economics professor Craig Gundersen, said in an interview with Stateline that he had a different view of the extra SNAP benefits with unemployment so low.

“I was in favor of increasing everyone to the maximum benefit during the first part of COVID,” said Gunderson, who studies hunger and poverty. “However, now in an era where jobs are plentiful, to be bumping everyone to the maximum may actually discourage people from working.” 

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the economy collapsed and hungry families swamped food banks, Congress temporarily increased SNAP benefits by raising all benefits by 15% and boosting every household to the maximum benefit allowed for its household size. In April 2021, the Biden administration bumped up the extra aid to a minimum of $95 for all households.

The surge in food assistance worked, according to the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities: The typical annual measure of food insecurity in 2020 was 10.5%—no higher than it was in 2019, before the pandemic. That same measure rose dramatically during the Great Recession in 2008 and 2009.

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The federal government covers the cost of SNAP benefits, but the federal government and states split the cost of administering the program. According to preliminary numbers, 21.6 million U.S. households have received SNAP benefits in fiscal 2022. The average monthly payment per household was $448.

The 15% increase expired for everyone Sept. 30, 2021. The maximum benefit boost will expire when the federal public health emergency ends or when states end their own emergency or disaster declarations. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services renewed the federal emergency Friday for an additional 90 days.

To qualify for the emergency benefits, a state must check a few boxes on a one-page application and confirm that it is either under its own public health emergency order or a disaster declaration due to COVID-19.

As of mid-July, 30 states had ended or allowed their health emergency orders to expire, but 18 of those states continued to qualify for emergency SNAP benefits because they are citing disaster declarations. According to the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency website, every state has at least one active disaster declaration due to COVID-19.

The latest state to cut off the extra benefits was Georgia in June. In an email, a spokesperson for Republican Gov. Brian Kemp said Georgia residents don’t need the additional help, citing a strong economy and a low unemployment rate.

“If any Georgian or Georgia families are experiencing food insecurity, we have many other statewide programs to help support them,” the statement said.

But food banks across Georgia say they have seen an increase in clients since the emergency benefits were cut off. Danah Craft, executive director of Feeding Georgia, a network of food banks across the state, said food banks are so overwhelmed they are no longer able to feed people with their usual donations, forcing them to buy food instead.

According to Feeding Georgia, the pandemic caused a sustained 30% spike in demand. After the state ended the extra aid, demand doubled at some food banks in the network, Craft said.

“They're doing everything they can think of, but purchasing food is not sustainable for the food bank network,” she said.

Erin Barger, chief executive officer of the Food Bank of Northeast Georgia, which covers 14 mostly rural counties, said the end of the emergency benefits has been a real challenge for people who already were struggling. She said on average, households reported getting about $89 extra per month in emergency benefits, but that inflation devoured a lot of the increase.

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In May, food prices were 11.9% higher than in May of 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. USDA also oversees SNAP.

“I think some of these benefits are ending because there is an assumption that as we're emerging from the pandemic, that things have returned to normal,” Craft said. “But the reality is that people are faring worse than they did pre-COVID.”

Zareena Meyn, executive director of mRelief, a nonprofit that helps people across the country apply for SNAP benefits through a text-message based app, says there are about 9 million people who are eligible but not enrolled.

She said many people don’t know about the program, or don’t know they’re eligible. For some, there is a stigma to accepting government help. But Meyn said a major impediment is that states make it so difficult to sign up.

“A lot of states make it virtually impossible to apply,” she said. “The process to initially sign up for benefits and then maintain those benefits can be really nebulous and inaccessible for so many people.”

But critics say that without work requirements, many people stay on SNAP longer than they need to.

Lawmakers in at least 14 states have introduced measures that would require people receiving SNAP to work, an effort that began prior to the pandemic and has been championed by conservative think tanks.

Stateline found eight bills so far this year in Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, New Jersey, Ohio, Wisconsin and West Virginia and two in Congress calling for mandatory work requirements and/or employment training for SNAP recipients. 

Scott Centorino, senior fellow at the Foundation for Government Accountability, a conservative think tank based in Florida, said requiring people who receive SNAP and other government aid to work will help address the national labor shortage. He criticized the federal government for barring the implementation of SNAP work requirements while the federal emergency is in place.

There were approximately 11.3 million job openings in the U.S. as of May, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“If you can't ask able-bodied folks in your state to work, train or volunteer even part time as a condition of receiving benefits, because the federal government has tied your hands on that, what can you do?” he said.

Georgia state Sen. Bruce Thompson, a Republican, introduced a bill in February that called for mandatory work or employment training requirements for SNAP recipients. The bill, which died in committee, would have required SNAP recipients to work 20 hours or more per week or participate in a work program for the same amount of time to receive aid.

Ten states—Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Texas and Utah—have instituted some form of mandatory work and training requirements for SNAP recipients. But those requirements aren’t in effect because of the federal order.

There are also two similar bills in Congress.

“For too long, the Left has waged a war on work. That needs to end today,” U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, a Florida Republican, said in a statement upon introducing his federal bill. “Policies put in place during the pandemic to pay people more to sit at home than go back to work are the radical Left’s latest and boldest move to boost government dependency.”

Scott’s bill would establish work and training requirements for SNAP participants and people who receive Section 8 housing vouchers, but Craft of Feeding Georgia noted that most SNAP recipients already work.  

“If states want to create work programs, and supports for families, then they should do that,” Craft said. “But they should not make all of that contingent on whether or not people eat.”

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Stateline is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts that provides daily reporting and analysis on trends in state policy.

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Kelly Greenwell/U.S. Air National Guard

Arizona National Guard service members deliver food to Pima County residents on March 26, 2020, at the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona.