(Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Millions of impoverished Americans will have more money to spend on food in the coming months. In an effort to stem the high rates of hunger and food insecurity in the U.S., the Biden administration on Monday announced that the Department of Agriculture would increase the food assistance amount for recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by as much as 25%. This will raise the average monthly benefits per person from $121to $157.41.

Food insecurity, which is defined as a lack of consistent access to enough food, is at its highest since formal research on the subject began in the 1990s. At a time of multiple and compounding crises—an ongoing deadly pandemic, economic crisis, and violent weather events brought on by unmitigated climate change—an increasing number of U.S. households are reliant on SNAP as a food security safety net. SNAP ensures that more than 40 million recipients, nearly half of whom live below the federal poverty line and have no income, receive funds to purchase staple goods like meat, cheese, and vegetables. The program assists those who suffer disproportionately from low wages, unemployment, and housing discrimination—and certain demographics are more likely to require the service than others. 

According to a report by the National Women’s Law Center from 2018, women comprised nearly 63% of SNAP recipients under 60. Nearly all of the 61% of households with children receiving assistance were headed by a single woman, and 33% of adult SNAP recipients were women of color. While the expansion is a welcome change for SNAP recipients, women in the program, many of whom are single parents, need more than a few additional dollars to help put food on the table for their families. 

Problems with eligibility

Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow in the Income and Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute, says the expansion is “the single most significant improvement to the program since it was scaled in the 1970s.” However, the changes, which go into effect in October, might not address all impacts of hunger and food-related inequities the federal government is hoping for. 

“It’s not going to solve all our problems,” Waxman said, citing the barriers to entry the program maintains, like eligibility requirements that exclude undocumented immigrants. There are also other structural barriers that prevent many people, especially Black, brown, and women of color, from securing recipient status in the first place. Regulations dictate what specific circumstances people are required to demonstrate in order to qualify: The federal assistance is limited to three months and contingent on employment for adults without children—making it difficult for women who provide unpaid familial care to work a formalized part-time job. In many cases, applicants also have to demonstrate part-time employment, an unreasonable requirement for many women recipients of SNAP benefits, including those who can’t afford child care or who are survivors of domestic violence, for example. There’s no evidence that this provision is a motivator for employment, but it does prevent food insecure adults from accessing food. 

The structural barriers to access, like a provision that prevents immigrants with documentation from accessing SNAP if they’ve been living in the U.S. for fewer than five years, are wrapped up in political battles that stretch further than what SNAP can address. 

SNAP for families

The alterations to what’s known as the Thrifty Food Plan, the food assistance program’s blueprint for determining funding allotments per individual and household, adjust for economic changes that have occurred over the past half century. Until this year, the USDA had not adjusted the benefit amount to reflect the cost of living, food, or busy work schedules of most of its recipients. For instance, the previous Thrift Food Plan allowed for 13 to 16 hours per week to prepare food, positioning items like dry beans that need to be soaked before being cooked as viable grocery options for busy mothers. This puts mothers, who already prepare a majority of household meals, in the position of working more hours at home after their formal work day. A 2018 report by the Urban Institute found that in 96% of counties, SNAP per meal funds could not purchase a low-cost meal. Another main driver of the shift in deciding how much money a recipient will receive from the federal government were study results that reported almost all SNAP recipients had difficulty purchasing healthy food because it was too expensive. 

What worries policy experts and advocates for food security and equity are the critical impacts of access to healthy food. For instance, food security and nourishing meals are directly related to and predictive of life outcomes such as education and degree attainment, housing security, net worth, and the likelihood that one will develop diseases later in life like diabetes. This is especially important when considering that 43% of those reliant on SNAP for their meals are children, meaning that SNAP provides consistent access to food in years critical for brain and body growth. 

The individuals for whom the pandemic exacerbated existing and historical inequalities, including single working women of color, have experienced the highest rates of food insecurity. Waxman says that Urban Institute research from fall 2020 found that Black and Latinx households with school-aged children were food insecure at a rate of 40%. And while the changes made to the Thrifty Food Plan will help Black and Latinx families access food more consistently, Waxman said state-by-state income limit regulations also prevent some people from even “getting in the door,” given that cost of living can vary widely across U.S. cities. 

“One of the things that we also worry about is that there may be a number of families where kids are eligible for SNAP, but a parent might not be,” Waxman said. “And because of the hostile immigration climate in recent years, families have been afraid to apply for benefits that they would even be eligible for.”

Ray Levy Uyeda is a staff reporter at Prism, focusing on environmental and climate justice. Find Ray on Twitter @raylevyuyeda.