The end of the pandemic-era program means the loss of millions of dollars of direct aid for the state’s poorest residents.
By Brian Zayatz
Beginning in March, recipients of Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits around the country will no longer receive extra benefits on their cards each month, due to negotiations over the federal budget which took place late last year. The final payment of the minimum $95 monthly bonus allotment will be paid on March 2nd.
For the nearly 200,000 residents of Hampshire, Hampden, and Franklin Counties to participate in the program, this could mean an abrupt drop in food purchasing power come April.
Republican-led efforts to curb public spending on mitigating the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic were largely successful in Congress’s budget negotiations. Massachusetts has participated in this program, formally called “emergency allotments,” since it was first established in March 2020 by the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act (the program was expanded in 2021 by President Biden). By the time Congress voted to cut the program, some states had already elected not to utilize emergency allotments to relieve food insecurity during the pandemic, or placed restrictions on eligibility. Massachusetts, however, has continued to make the payments freely available to all residents who receive SNAP benefits.
In its messaging to SNAP recipients, the state Department of Transitional Assistance, which administers the program, advises program enrollees to ensure their information is up to date with the department, as changes in income, medical costs, household size, age, or disability status can translate to increases in monthly SNAP payments. They also encourage recipients to start saving up their benefits now, and to take advantage of the Healthy Incentives Program (HIP), which places up to $40 per month back into a SNAP account after benefits are spent at participating vendors of fresh foods and produce, like farmers markets or farmstands.
But no matter how much a SNAP recipient might be able to increase their monthly allotment at this time, there’s no way to frame the end of emergency allotments as anything but a significant loss in direct aid to the state’s poorest residents.
With an average emergency allotment of $151 per household per month, the program’s end signifies a loss of almost $95 million per month across the state, and a reduction in the average SNAP household’s benefits by about 40%. SNAP families with children under age five will see their average monthly benefit drop by $221. For a full-time worker making the state minimum wage of $15/hour and receiving the minimum emergency allotment, the program’s elimination represents a roughly 4% pay cut.
The loss of these benefits will also not be felt uniformly across the state. Based on data available for December 2022, about 35% of Hampden County residents receive SNAP benefits, compared to a state average of 17%. Franklin and Berkshire Counties both have slightly above average numbers of SNAP recipients, while Hampshire County clocks in at 12%.
All of this comes at a time when food prices have spiked above levels of overall inflation, already the highest it’s been in decades, which some experts have alleged is due to corporate greed rather than the widely cited “supply-chain issues.” Together, these developments paint a bleak forecast for Massachusetts families experiencing, or on the brink of, food insecurity.
Putting food on the table
While Republicans, particularly under the Biden administration, have largely led the charge on rolling back the few remaining social programs from the early pandemic, President Biden recently confirmed rumors of the joint end of the national emergency and public health emergency in May. The move has been seen as intended to preempt a Republican led vote to end the emergencies immediately, but it also raises more obstacles for Democrats interested in preserving pandemic-related social aid programs.
For Congressman Jim McGovern, who has made combating hunger a focal point of his 26 years representing parts of Hampshire, Franklin, and Worcester Counties, this is a cause for concern.
“Look: SNAP works, and if it were up to me, we would have made those upticks in the program permanent,” McGovern told The Shoestring in a phone interview, explaining how the average allotment went from $1.40 per person per meal to a current level of $2.49, which will be reduced to about $2 with the end of emergency allotments, thanks to President Biden’s raising of base allotments. “It aggravates me to no end that we’re constantly fighting against efforts to nickel and dime programs like SNAP,” he continued.
“You try living on $2 per person per meal,” McGovern said, addressing his Republican colleagues. “You can’t even buy a cup of coffee for that. I’ve lived on a SNAP diet on a couple of occasions, and it’s almost impossible.”
McGovern, who is now the chair of the powerful Rules Committee in Congress, has had the ear of the President recently on the issue of hunger, most recently manifested by the first White House conference dedicated to the subject since 1969, which took place in September. The President, for his part, has committed to ending hunger in the US by 2030.
As McGovern gears up for another fight on the five-year Farm Bill, through which he wants to expand SNAP and prioritize the needs of small- and medium-sized farmers over “big agribusiness,” who he points to as “responsible not just for poorer quality food, but for raising prices out of corporate greed,” he also praised incoming Governor Maura Healey for taking the issue seriously. The Governor’s supplemental budget, announced January 30th, allocates $130 million to fund three additional months of extra benefits at the level of 40% of the emergency allotment amount once the federal program ends, creating an “offramp” rather than an abrupt drop in benefits.. The budget will have to be approved by the state legislature to take effect.
Nevertheless, food aid workers on the ground are still preparing for an uptick in need this spring.
“It’s such a large amount of money that the state is in no position to be able to carry that benefit forward indefinitely,” said Christina Maxwell, director of programs at the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. In addition to the end of SNAP emergency allotments, the nonprofit is also anticipating the Medicaid redetermination which will come with the end of the public health emergency. “That will end up moving a lot of people off the Medicaid rolls, who will then need to pay more for medical expenses, and therefore may have less money to pay for food.”
Maxwell said that at the start of the pandemic, the Food Bank went from serving about 90,000 people per month to over 103,000. Of all the different government pandemic aid programs, she said the child tax credit had the most noticeable impact. “When that was in place our service numbers actually went down during the summertime, which is unusual for us,” she said, “and the minute that credit went away, that number started spiking again.”
According to Maxwell, numbers climbed again in 2022 due to inflation.
For those finding themselves in need, she recommended visiting the Food Bank’s website at foodbankwma.org, which has a list of pantries and meal sites searchable by location and day of the week. She stressed that these locations are open to everyone, even active SNAP recipients, and also noted that anyone seeking assistance updating their SNAP determination can call the Food Bank’s SNAP hotline at (413) 992-6204.
Brian Zayatz is a co-editor of The Shoestring. Image courtesy of Food Bank of Western Massachusetts.
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