• Written by Tracy Roof, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Richmond
SNAP benefits cost a total of $85.6B in the 2020 fiscal year amid heightened US poverty and unemployment The government spent a record US$85.6 billion[1] on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program[2] in the fiscal year[3] ending in September. This sum, included in an October Treasury Department report, was about 35% higher than the $63.5 billion the federal government spent in 2019. Spending on this state-administered program, which helps struggling families put food on the table, typically rises and falls in tandem with unemployment and poverty[4]. Along with unemployment insurance[5], SNAP is one of the most responsive programs in a recession. The most vulnerable families can get benefits within seven days[6] of applying. Before the coronavirus pandemic, SNAP spending had been steadily declining since a 2013 peak of nearly $80 billion[7] following the Great Recession[8]. But as the COVID-19-triggered economic crisis hit, monthly spending more than doubled, from $4.9 billion in February to $10.6 billion in June, according to Treasury Department data[9]. The jump came from two factors. First, more people are getting benefits. Second, roughly 60% of the families who get them are eligible for more support than before. Specifically, after the Families First Coronavirus Response Act[10] relief package Congress passed in March 2020, the government temporarily offered the maximum benefit[11], typically given only to those with no income, to all families on SNAP. Following a 5.3% increase[12] announced Oct. 1 in response to rising food costs, that maximum level stands at $680 a month for a family of four. Despite this SNAP spending boost, lines at food banks[13] have grown much longer during the pandemic. To help both overwhelmed food banks and struggling farmers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched the Farmers to Families Food Box[14] Program. The government had sent by mid-October 110 million boxes of fresh fruit, vegetables, dairy products and meat to food banks and other organizations assisting people facing economic hardship[15]. The USDA is spending about $4 billion[16] to purchase the food. But the program has been criticized[17] by lawmakers[18] and anti-hunger groups as inefficient and poorly managed[19]. Although food banks have appreciated the help, even people who run food banks[20] see SNAP as the best way to help the hungry. In fact, in researching the history of SNAP[21] for an upcoming book, I found that the program long known as food stamps slowly replaced another program distributing surplus food to the needy in the 1960s. Government researchers found that giving families stamps to exchange for food in grocery stores was more efficient and effective. In 2019, 92% of SNAP[22] spending went directly to benefits. The program boosts the economy, leading to more consumer spending and jobs[23]. SNAP also provides nine meals[24] for every one meal supplied by Feeding America, the largest network of food banks. [Deep knowledge, daily. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter[25].] Almost 2,500 organizations[26] serving the poor are calling for increasing maximum SNAP benefits by 15%. This would help all families on SNAP – including the 40% with the lowest incomes who have not gotten additional help so far during the pandemic. The House passed relief legislation in May and October[27] that called for this 15% increase. As of late October, the Senate had not taken this step even though food insecurity has grown[28] substantially.


  1. ^ US$85.6 billion (
  2. ^ Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (
  3. ^ fiscal year (
  4. ^ unemployment and poverty (
  5. ^ unemployment insurance (
  6. ^ seven days (
  7. ^ $80 billion (
  8. ^ Great Recession (
  9. ^ Treasury Department data (
  10. ^ Families First Coronavirus Response Act (
  11. ^ temporarily offered the maximum benefit (
  12. ^ 5.3% increase (
  13. ^ lines at food banks (
  14. ^ Farmers to Families Food Box (
  15. ^ people facing economic hardship (
  16. ^ $4 billion (
  17. ^ criticized (
  18. ^ lawmakers (
  19. ^ inefficient and poorly managed (
  20. ^ people who run food banks (
  21. ^ researching the history of SNAP (
  22. ^ 92% of SNAP (
  23. ^ leading to more consumer spending and jobs (
  24. ^ nine meals (
  25. ^ Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter (
  26. ^ 2,500 organizations (
  27. ^ House passed relief legislation in May and October (
  28. ^ food insecurity has grown (

Authors: Tracy Roof, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Richmond

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Metropolitan republishes selected articles from The Conversation USA with permission

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