Republicans Want To Make Sure Presidents Can’t Boost Food Benefits Like Joe Biden Did

WASHINGTON ― In 2021, President Joe Biden enacted the largest-ever permanent increase to federal food benefits, giving the average Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients an extra $36 per person each month.

The 21% benefit boost stands as one of the major domestic policy changes of Biden’s first term. But it happened at a time when many safety net policies were in flux due to the coronavirus pandemic, and it hasn’t received much attention.

Republicans noticed, however, and now they’re hoping to change the law to prevent a future Democratic president from making a similar move.

“President Biden upended four decades of history and singlehandedly enacted a $256 billion increase in SNAP spending over a ten-year period,” House Agriculture Committee chair Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.) wrote in an April op-ed outlining his plan of counterattack.

Thompson wants to make it so SNAP’s monthly benefits can only be adjusted for inflation, without regard to dietary guidance or patterns of food consumption, which were the reasons the Biden administration used to justify the 2021 increase. Thompson’s proposal is part of a broader “farm bill” that would make other tweaks to both nutrition and agriculture policies.

Democrats have strongly opposed Thompson’s proposal, and it’s unclear whether it can become law given Democratic control of the Senate and White House.

“President Biden entered office determined to rebuild our economy from the middle out and bottom up so no one is left behind.” White House spokesman Jeremy Edwards said in a statement to HuffPost. “That’s why he took historic action to reduce hunger and give families more breathing room, including the largest ever permanent increase in SNAP benefits, which is helping families put healthy food on the table.”

Edwards added that it’s “beyond shameful” Republicans would “try to take food away from millions of American families, including millions of children.”

More than 21 million households receive SNAP benefits, distributed on debit cards to only use for food purchases at grocery stores. It’s one of the federal government’s largest and most responsive economic programs, and it’s a perennial topic of political debate, with Republicans pushing for stricter eligibility rules and complaining that a monthly food allowance makes poor people unwilling to take low-wage jobs.

During a debate on federal spending last year, Republicans pushed for stricter “work requirements” on certain SNAP recipients over age 49, and the White House agreed only after insisting on an exception for veterans and homeless people. The resulting compromise, crafted partly through direct negotiation between Thompson and Biden, will likely lead to a net increase in benefit payments, according to an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office.

The Biden administration’s 2021 increase to monthly benefits, meanwhile, was more significant but happened as several pandemic-related changes expired, which may have made it hard for SNAP recipients to notice since the increase made up for the loss of one pandemic increase but not another, and benefits ultimately declined from their 2022 high.

The average monthly benefit per person increased from $155 in 2019 to $230 in 2022 before settling at $188 this year, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Biden increase resulted from an update to the “Thrifty Food Plan,” the government’s mathematical model of a healthy diet for a low-income family, with an eye toward more nutritious foods, including more fish, more “red and orange” vegetables like bell peppers and carrots.

Since SNAP allotments increase on a per-person basis, the change was most substantial for households with children, whose benefits went from around $420 to $542 on average.

“The 2021 reevaluation resulted in such a significant increase to benefits because it was catching up for almost 50 years of not adjusting benefits to reflect reality,” Katie Bergh, a senior policy analyst with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said in an interview. “It may not have felt like a lot, because this is a permanent increase, it is having a very significant ongoing impact for families.”

The Center on Budget estimated that the 2021 change has lifted 2.4 million Americans above the government’s income-based poverty threshold.

Thompson said his proposal would reduce SNAP spending by about $30 billion out of more than $1 trillion over 10 years.

Democrats have panned Thompson’s farm bill because of the nutrition policy change.

“This farm bill makes the largest financial cut to SNAP in 30 years, and they’re doing it at a time of greatest need for this SNAP program to serve our American people,” Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) said during a committee meeting where Republicans approved Thompson’s plan last month.

Thompson and other Republicans countered that benefits would continue to go up to keep pace with inflation and that their bill wouldn’t take away the increase Biden had already added. Republicans have said Biden overstepped his authority.

Thompson said at the hearing, “If the benefit must be increased beyond inflation, Congress must consider and execute.”