Food Stamp Enrollment Soars Amid Pandemic

Food Stamp Enrollment Soars Amid Pandemic

© Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

About 43 million people are now receiving food stamps, and millions more could soon turn to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program if Congress allows enhanced unemployment benefits to expire this month.

According to an analysis by The New York Times, the first three months of the coronavirus pandemic saw the fastest growth in participation in the federal food stamp program on record, with enrollment growing by more than 6 million from February to May – a growth rate of 17%.

Total participation is still below the record high of 48 million set in 2012 in the aftermath of the Great Recession, but they may change soon. At the end of July, about 20 million Americans could lose the $600 per week boost to unemployment benefits provided by the CARES Act, and many of those households will then qualify for food stamps.

Spending on SNAP, which cost $60 billion last year, has grown even faster than enrollment, in part because Congress has temporarily allowed all applicants to receive maximum benefits. For example, households with three people are now receiving the maximum of $509 per month in food aid, a big jump from the average of $378 per month from before the pandemic hit. (The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has a rundown on the pre-pandemic SNAP numbers, as well as a more recent analysis of the current state of the program.)

Some interesting details from the report:

  • About one in eight Americans is now participating in SNAP.
  • Thirty states (of the 42 the Times could collect data for) saw double-digit growth in enrollment.
  • Only one state – Arizona – saw a decline.
  • More than 200,000 people signed up in both Miami and Los Angeles, while more than 100,000 joined in Atlanta.
  • In Michigan, where roughly 1.5 million people received benefits in May, cases have grown by 30% and spending by 90%.
  • In the Atlanta area, cases grew more in wealthy, suburban Cobb County (55%) than in urban Fulton County (40%).
  • Cases grew the most in Florida, where nearly 1 million people joined the food stamp program.

What’s next: The coronavirus pandemic has produced a ceasefire in the long-running political battle over SNAP, at least for now. The Trump administration has eased its efforts to reduce participation in the food stamp program, and thanks to the pandemic there are now more people on food stamps than there were when President Trump took office. But Democrats, citing an increase in food prices, are looking for a permanent 15% increase in benefits, a change that will likely be part of the negotiations over the size and content of the next coronavirus relief package.