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Despite Surging Need Amid Pandemic, GOP Moves to Roll Back SNAP When Food Assistance 'Matters Now More Than Ever'

"SNAP delivered. Like it always does."

About six million people signed up for the SNAP program in the first three months of the coronavirus pandemic, an unprecedented expansion of the program. (Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Pointing to the success of the SNAP food assistance program during the coronavirus pandemic, economists on Monday said Republicans' plan to end the expansion of the aid would be "unconscionable."

As the New York Times reported, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program saw an unprecedented growth in demand as the coronavirus outbreak began, with 17% more Americans, or six million people, relying on the program in the first three months of the pandemic.

At least 41 states saw an increase in the use of SNAP, which was expanded to allow people to use the benefits with fewer restrictions. Thirty states experienced double-digit growth, with more people relying on food aid across suburbs, urban areas, and rural towns.

"We can do more to address hardship. SNAP is a powerful platform that can help."
—Stacy Dean, CBPP

The expansion came after Congress passed legislation in March allowing all recipients to use the maximum aid allowed for their household size—permitting a household of three people to use $509 per month to buy groceries. 

States were also temporarily able to enroll people without conducting interviews and to suspend reviews of existing applicants, but the suspension of those reviews has since ended. 

People who have relied on the program in recent months told the Times that it had immensely helped their family's physical and psychological well-being during a time of uncertainty and rising food insecurity. Unlike the $600 per week boost in unemployment benefits that passed as part of the CARES Act in March, SNAP recipients did not face lengthy delays in accessing the benefits. 

"It was the first safety net, because that's what I could count on," MaKayela Johnson, who was furloughed from her job at a medical office in Kentucky, told the Times. 

"SNAP delivered," tweeted TalkPoverty.org, an anti-poverty project of the Center for American Progress. "Like it always does."

The Times report comes a month after two studies separately concluded that the $600 unemployment benefits combined with the $1,200 direct payment sent to some Americans significantly reduced poverty levels in the U.S. in the first months of the pandemic.

Despite the success of both programs, Republicans want to end their expansion at the end of this month. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) said this week that the SNAP program should be expanded further, with the maximum benefit increased. Democrats in Congress have called for a 15% increase due to skyrocketing food prices. 

"SNAP goes a long way towards alleviating hunger but doesn't eliminate it because the benefits aren't high enough,” Dottie Rosenbaum of the CBPP told the Times. "Omitting a boost in SNAP benefits would be an unconscionable failure." 

President Donald Trump has spent considerable time during his term pushing to impose work requirements and narrow eligibility criteria for the program, and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue planned to implement the work rules on April 1, two weeks after the pandemic was declared a national emergency, before a federal judge blocked him from doing so. 

Last week, the CBPP explained a number of reasons, beyond elevated food prices, that SNAP must be expanded as the pandemic and its effects on the economy persist.

Many of the poorest households didn't receive any benefit from the SNAP expansion, as they were already receiving the maximum benefit, explained Brynne Keith-Jennings, senior research analyst for the think tank. 

"Low-income households generally experience the harshest impacts of economic downturns, and it often takes longer for the benefits of the recovery to reach them," Keith-Jennings wrote. "Extending SNAP relief as long as the economy remains weak will help families put food on the table while their income remains low."

On Twitter Monday, CBPP's vice president for food assistance policy, Stacy Dean, wrote that "SNAP matters now more than ever."

"We can do more to address hardship. SNAP is a powerful platform that can help," Dean added. "An increase would help continue to reduce poverty and lessen the rise in food insecurity." 

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