The SNAP Gap: Why millions of Americans will face a food scarcity crisis this month and next
The Trump Shutdown is over, but some of its consequences are still playing out. Millions of SNAP recipients will face very real food shortages later this month and next — due to the shutdown itself as well as the underlying inadequacy of the SNAP program (more about this later).
First, some background is in order.
In a well-intentioned move, USDA moved aggressively to make sure February SNAP benefits were distributed despite the government shutdown. They did this by authorizing states (which administer SNAP) to distribute February SNAP benefits to the program’s approximately 39 million recipients on or before Jan. 20.
The next round of SNAP benefits will be distributed in March – when in March depends on the state, and, in some cases, the luck of the draw – some states distribute benefits on a rolling basis, depending on a family member’s Social Security number, case number, or where his or her last name falls in the alphabet.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that seven states, covering just 2 percent of SNAP beneficiaries, issue benefits on the first day of the month. That means the SNAP recipients in these states would face a 40-day gap between Jan. 20 and March 1. That 40-day figure is important; as CBPP notes, SNAP law requires that “no household experience an interval between issuances of more than 40 days.”
What of the other states? Some 21 states issue all, or almost all, of their SNAP benefits within the first ten days of the month. This would mean a gap of 40 to 49 days for those recipients. About half of all states have some households that will have 50 days or more before SNAP benefits are received, unless states change their distribution schedules. 14 percent of SNAP households will experience a gap of 51 to 55 days; 8 percent will see a gap of 55 to 60 days, and 3 percent will face a painful interval of 61 days or more.
Why is this a problem? There are a number of reasons – and they all add up to one sobering conclusion. Things are going to get bad in a hurry for millions of Americans facing food scarcity.
First, SNAP benefits are just too low. The average SNAP benefit is about $1.40 per person, per meal, or somewhere between $125 and $126 a month. Many SNAP recipients can’t make that stretch over a month – much less more than 40 days or longer.
Second, we know (and CBPP reminds us) that SNAP benefits are spent quickly because families’ total income is very low, and once they’ve paid for rent, heat, and other urgent needs, they are heavily reliant on SNAP. Says the CBPP: “It’s well documented that SNAP benefits normally run out for most households before the end of the month. Within a week of receiving SNAP, households redeem over half of their SNAP allotments. By the end of the second week, SNAP households have redeemed three-quarters of their benefits, and by the end of the third week, they have redeemed 90 percent.”
Third, there was a lack of information in many local communities about why February benefits were distributed on Jan. 20 – and the need for rationing them through the next month. USDA did not require states to send households notice of the change in timing. Instead, states tried to rely on a combination of social and traditional media and their partners’ networks to spread the word – with mixed results.
The Washington Post reported that in South Carolina, a rumor was spread that SNAP recipients were required to spend their Jan. 20 allocation by the end of January or lose their benefits entirely, a blatantly false rumor.
Sue Berkowitz, director of the SC Appleseed Legal Justice Center, said the intent may have been nefarious.
“I am afraid it was done by someone who was trying to mislead folk,” she told Voices for Human Needs. “We had a piece up on Facebook about the February benefit, and there were some really ugly comments, which we deleted.”
Nonetheless, Berkowitz said, “My bigger concern is how are people going to make their benefits last for five or six weeks when we know that at best they can last 2.5 (weeks).”
Fourth and finally: many SNAP recipients live on the edge, one crisis away from financial calamity that can cause a shift in resources. Day-to-day emergencies – a higher-than-expected heating bill, a car breakdown, a change in job status — can emerge that force families to use cash on other things when they had planned to use it to supplement inadequate SNAP benefits.
Front-line service providers are worried, to put it mildly.
Simone Gordon is a waitperson, a part-time student, and the mother of a boy with autism. She administers the Facebook group, Special Needs People of Color Single Moms Help Group. The volunteer group, which has grown to about 500 members, regularly helps raise funds for those in dire need – and takes on special projects around the holidays, for example, or if a family is suddenly the victim of a disaster, such as families displaced by the California wildfires.
“As a black organizer, I certainly am concerned that SNAP benefits will run out,” Gordon told Voices for Human Needs. “This has become a major concern in Maryland, D.C. and southern states as food pantries are running out of food. Fundraising efforts to send families food are exhausting and I am horrified of what is yet to come.”
Berkowitz, the SC Appleseed director, added that she is “very worried about the increase in hunger for those folk, it is horrible. I wish we could get our state to think about a way to supplement. I don’t think the food banks will be able to compensate for the gap. They have been capping the number of people they see in Columbia for a while.”
Noting the consequences of shutting down the government over the Administration’s insistence on border wall funding, Berkowitz concludes:
“This did not have to happen. And people understand that the current Administration caused a confrontation that had no relationship to what is really going on at the border, causing people to be harmed.”