The Biden Administration's Chance to Improve SNAP and Nutrition Support


May 19, 2021

Woman walking by a convenience store with signs indicating acceptance of WIC and food stamps in Chelsea, Massachusetts, April 16, 2020, photo by Keiko Hiromi/Reuters

A woman walks by a convenience store that accepts WIC and SNAP in Chelsea, Massachusetts, April 16, 2020

Photo by Keiko Hiromi/Reuters

The Biden administration is strengthening nutrition support for families experiencing poverty. The American Rescue Plan, passed earlier this year, included $12 billion in additional support for major food assistance programs, and the proposed American Families Plan expands access to free school lunch, summertime cash benefits for families with children, and support for formerly incarcerated individuals typically excluded from nutrition programs. This last proposal may be critical for Black Americans disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system.

It's well known that the administration has begun to prioritize racial equity in federal programs, from COVID-19 vaccinations to highway construction, but more could be done to make nutrition benefits easier to access, too. One way to do that is by targeting onerous rules that perpetuate racial inequity.

Simply extending the more relaxed rules forced by the COVID-19 pandemic would help. More than six million additional people turned to the Department of Agriculture (USDA) Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps, to eat during the COVID-19 pandemic. This was facilitated, in part, by temporary changes that made it easier to sign up for and use SNAP. For example, Congress suspended (PDF) work requirements and increased benefits, and the USDA waived burdensome application requirements.

As these changes expire in coming months, families may once again have to endure a confusing application process that makes it difficult to sign up and stay enrolled. These obstacles can exacerbate existing challenges faced by racial and ethnic minorities. Hunger in America disproportionately afflicts Black, Latino, and Indigenous American households.

Federal policymakers and state/territorial agencies that administer SNAP could also target administrative obstacles such as poor customer service, punitive eligibility rules (PDF), and outdated enrollment systems.

A recent RAND Corporation study found severely high food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic among a sample of Black Americans living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who were enrolled in SNAP. This meant families had very limited or uncertain access to sufficient amounts of nutritious food within the past month. The study suggests households enrolled in SNAP needed more support and that many more food-insecure households not enrolled in SNAP, a full quarter of all households in our sample—should have been.

SNAP serves an essential role in alleviating hunger by providing cash to purchase groceries. In a typical month, SNAP provides roughly $125 per person to help over 35 million. Yet each month, roughly seven million Americans who are eligible for SNAP do not participate in the program.

SNAP, like many public assistance programs, can be plagued with archaic, confusing, and burdensome rules.

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Why don't they sign up? SNAP, like many public assistance programs, can be plagued with archaic, confusing, and burdensome rules.

Consider the SNAP application process in Pennsylvania, where RAND conducted its study. The application for SNAP and related public assistance is 30 pages (PDF) long and typically requires an in-person interview, documentation of income and expenses (e.g., medical bills), and a description of assets and criminal history. Once approved, changes must be reported regularly to renew eligibility. Many lose benefits during this process because of reporting delays or errors. While Pennsylvania has made efforts to simplify the process, many states lag behind, according to the USDA's own analysis of state policies.

Many of these barriers compound challenges faced by racial minorities. For example, rules requiring consistent employment may be more likely to hurt Black Americans, who often face discriminatory hiring practices and may live in communities with higher levels of unemployment. Similarly, rules that limit access on the basis of criminal history and immigration status may be especially harmful for communities that are overpoliced. Some barriers, like racial discrimination in public assistance caseworkers' sanctioning and discretionary decisions, explicitly harm people of color.

Other barriers are more subtle. Single-parent families, which are more common among racial minorities, may have a harder time attending in-person interviews, which are required for enrollment. Immigrants who are eligible for assistance may avoid benefits for fear of public charge rules, which make it more difficult for immigrants to obtain green cards or temporary visas if they have received public benefits.

Racial attitudes continue to influence how people view public assistance programs.

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There is historical context (PDF) for this kind of structural racism in public assistance programs. Recall, political candidates raising the specter of “welfare queens,” which contributed to racist stereotypes about welfare fraud. Opinion surveys suggest racial attitudes continue to influence how people view public assistance programs.

Proponents of complicated eligibility rules argue that they are intended to reduce fraud and promote employment. However, research suggests that fraud is extraordinarily rare and work requirements do not necessarily help people to become employed.

One option to improve enrollment for racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, and formerly incarcerated individuals might be to remove these obstacles. The administration could also update the outdated Thrifty Food Plan, a formula used to set benefit levels based on the cost of an affordable yet nutritious diet, to ensure (PDF) benefit amounts actually lift families out of food insecurity by helping them purchase nutritious food, which is the point of the program.

If policymakers were to make permanent the relaxed rules forced by the COVID-19 pandemic, it could be a start to increased racial equity in SNAP. Given broad public support for SNAP, ensuring benefits are easier to access, particularly for those already eligible, could be a bipartisan priority.

Sameer M. Siddiqi is an associate policy researcher who studies food insecurity and health and environmental equity at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

This first appeared in The Washington Monthly on May 18, 2021. All Rights Reserved