On Food Assistance, Biden Strays Dramatically From Obama’s Record

The Biden administration has headed off an across-the-board food benefit reduction like the one that took effect in 2013.

With a permanent benefit increase set to take effect this fall, President Joe Biden is basically doing the opposite of what Barack Obama did on food assistance.

Democrats in Congress and the Obama administration boosted food benefits by about 13% in the 2009 stimulus bill in response to the Great Recession.

But then Democrats raided the extra funds they’d appropriated for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (the official name of the program formerly known as food stamps) to pay for a school lunch bill instead, setting up an unprecedented month-to-month benefit cut that took effect in November 2013, swamping some food pantries and soup kitchens with extra demand.

Biden faced a similar situation this year with the September expiration of a 15% food assistance boost, one of several pandemic-inspired enhancements to SNAP benefits. Instead of just letting the benefits drop, the Biden administration announced this week that it would permanently raise payments by 21%, with the average monthly allotment going up $36 per person starting in October.

The increase resulted from a little-noticed provision of a 2018 law requiring the Department of Agriculture, which administers SNAP, to reevaluate the “thrifty food plan” formula that the agency uses to set benefit levels.

Officially, it’s just a coincidence that the new formula takes effect right when a temporary benefit enhancement expires. Republicans have claimed that by giving people more money for food, the Biden administration strayed from the intent of the law.

Either way, there’s no question Biden’s benefit increase reflects a dramatic change in the debate over using the federal government to make people’s lives easier.

“It’s a real departure from some of the acrimonious and negative discussion of SNAP that went on for several years,” Ellen Vollinger, legal director at the Food Research Action Center, said in an interview.

During the Obama years, Democrats largely conceded that there should be no new spending, period. They set up the 2013 food assistance cut, which affected more than 20 million households across the country, because they needed $14 billion to offset the cost of a school lunch initiative championed by then-first lady Michelle Obama. They felt they needed to say that their proposals would not add to the federal budget deficit.

And during the Trump years, Republicans in Congress proposed stricter eligibility rules for nutrition assistance; the Trump administration tried to enact some of the proposals as regulations after moderate senators refused to support SNAP cuts.

Deficit hawkery went out of style last year, thanks in large part to the pandemic. Even Republicans embraced higher spending and deficits during the Trump administration, and $14 billion is a trifling sum in light of the trillion-dollar bills that have garnered bipartisan support.

The 15% SNAP increase is one of several enhancements to nutrition benefits that will expire sometime in the coming months ― along with extra federal unemployment benefits, a partial moratorium on evictions, and a pause on student loan payments. One SNAP change, known as emergency allotments, has allowed recipients to receive the maximum benefit for their household size regardless of whether they actually qualify for a lesser amount. The policy lapses when states and the federal government decide the coronavirus is no longer a public health emergency.

“That will be a very big shock to those households,” Vollinger said of the emergency allotments.

Democrats have indicated they’re comfortable letting some new benefits disappear as they seek to entrench other policies implemented during the pandemic, such as a monthly cash benefit for virtually all families with children that Democrats created through the child tax credit. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said this week that she considered the administration’s permanent 21% increase to SNAP benefits to be part of that plan.

“This new permanent increase, alongside the transformative Biden Child Tax Credit that Democrats secured in our American Rescue Plan, will help ensure millions of Americans are able to afford enough healthy food to feed their families,” Pelosi said.

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