UNIDENTIFIED PERSON, BYLINE: NPR.
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CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:
Hey, everyone. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Cardiff Garcia.
DARIUS RAFIEYAN, BYLINE: And I'm Darius Rafieyan. The coronavirus pandemic has caused immense damage to the U.S. economy. And as a result, millions of Americans are struggling to feed themselves. A recent study by the Brookings Institution found that 1 in 5 U.S. households is food insecure. In other words, they don't have enough food to eat. That's nearly double what it was the last time the Department of Agriculture measured at the end of 2018. The number of mothers with children under 12 who say their kids aren't eating enough because they simply can't afford food has increased by 460%. And that is today's indicator - 460%.
GARCIA: Now, one of the most effective government programs we have to combat hunger is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP. It was formerly known as food stamps. And back in March, Congress passed the Families First Act (ph), which temporarily expanded the benefits under this program by an estimated 40%. But even so, the program is still inadequate to meet America's food security needs and now even that expansion of the program is set to expire.
RAFIEYAN: Today on the show - hunger in America. What happens if the SNAP program suddenly shrinks? And what can Congress do to help hungry families?
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RAFIEYAN: The first food stamps were issued in 1939 as a way of getting rid of the massive surplus of agricultural products that farmers were struggling to sell while also helping hungry Americans. Today the program has expanded and reaches more than 37 million people, nearly half of whom are children. Rather than buying actual food stamps, the benefits are now delivered in the form of a prepaid debit card, which you can use to buy most groceries.
GARCIA: Sara Bleich is a professor of public health policy at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health. She worked for the Department of Agriculture under the Obama administration, studying the SNAP program. But in one way, she's been studying it her entire life.
SARA BLEICH: So I am a former-SNAP baby, so I have a personal interest in the program.
RAFIEYAN: Sara says that the SNAP program is very effective at achieving its policy goals.
BLEICH: There's a lot of evidence that the two things that SNAP is designed to do, which is lift families out of poverty and reduce food insecurity - there's a lot of evidence that it does those two things very well.
GARCIA: Sara adds that it's also quite effective as an economic stimulus program because it gives money directly to the people who need it.
BLEICH: And then if you put money in the hands of people who are low-income, it quickly goes back out into the economy. So it has a huge multiplier effect across the entire food system.
RAFIEYAN: A study published last year by the USDA estimated that every $1 billion spent on SNAP creates $1.5 billion in increased economic activity and supports more than 13,000 jobs.
GARCIA: When the coronavirus pandemic started, Congress moved quickly to expand the program, bringing every family on SNAP up to the maximum benefit level, which is $646 per month for a family of four. But one shortcoming of this plan is that for the 40% of SNAP recipients who were already at that maximum level, this expansion had no effect at all. They were already getting as much money as they could from the program. And the larger issue, Sara says, is that the benefits are not really enough to meet the typical family's food needs.
BLEICH: That is about $1.40 per person, per meal over the month. And if you look at the United States, in 99% of U.S. counties, that is not enough money to purchase a meal. Imagine trying to buy lunch for $1.40. It's just - it's not doable.
GARCIA: And on top of that, the expansion was only set to last for two months based on when each state started the program. And that means that in a lot of places, the program has already expired. And in many other states, it's set to expire soon.
RAFIEYAN: Unless Congress acts quickly, millions of American families may soon see a massive reduction in their benefits at a time when people are experiencing historic levels of food insecurity.
BLEICH: There is a lot of action on the part of Congress in the first three stimulus bills. And as things have gotten progressively worse, that momentum on the legislative side hasn't persisted. But what has persisted is families not being able to eat and families not being able to pay rent. Like, none of those pains have gone away.
RAFIEYAN: A sudden drop in SNAP benefits wouldn't only harm recipients. SNAP is also an important economic lifeline for grocery stores, particularly independent grocery stores serving rural communities, where people are 25% more likely to be SNAP recipients.
GARCIA: One such person who's about to be impacted by the reduction in SNAP benefits is Bob Skyles. Bob is one of the co-owners of Richard Brothers (ph) grocery in Mountain Grove, Mo., a town of about 5,000 people.
BOB SKYLES: It's just a traditional supermarket - 25,000 square feet. My grandfather and his brother started it in the '30s, and I'm the third generation that's ran the store.
RAFIEYAN: An independent grocery store like Richards Brothers is a pretty small-margin business. And it's hard for someone like Bob to compete with the Walmart supercenter just down the road.
SKYLES: At one time, we had seven grocery stores. This is the only one left. Because of Walmart, there's just no profit in it anymore.
GARCIA: Walmart is the single largest corporate recipient of SNAP money. And about 18% of every SNAP dollar spent is spent at a Walmart. But a business like Walmart, with its huge scale and its logistical advantages, can more easily adapt to a reduction in benefits, whereas a store like Bob's, on the other hand, is much more reliant on SNAP.
SKYLES: I would say it's probably somewhere around 30% of our business. If it was to decrease, well, that would be bad for me.
RAFIEYAN: And a decrease may soon be coming. Missouri is set to reinstate work requirements for SNAP benefits, which had been temporarily suspended due to the pandemic. That means some SNAP recipients will have to work in order to receive benefits. This at a time when unemployment is at its highest level since the Great Depression.
GARCIA: Sara Bleich says that work requirements like this tend to push people off SNAP without actually achieving their intended effects.
BLEICH: There is no evidence that people who can work don't. In other words, pretty much everyone who receives SNAP who can work does work. And so work requirements are doing nothing to increase participation in a labor force.
GARCIA: And those work requirements - they also disproportionately affect Black Americans who tend to experience higher rates of unemployment.
RAFIEYAN: And up to now, work requirements for SNAP have been implemented on a state-by-state basis. But the Trump administration is pushing for federally mandated work requirements, which would push an estimated 700,000 people off SNAP.
GARCIA: That plan was set to go into effect on April 1. But it was blocked by a federal judge after 19 states, plus the District of Columbia and New York City, sued the Department of Agriculture. That lawsuit is still working its way through the courts. But if the rule were to go into effect, it could further exacerbate America's food insecurity.
RAFIEYAN: Meanwhile, the clock is ticking for lawmakers to agree on some form of SNAP expansion before they head out for their August recess. Sara Bleich thinks that if Congress really wants to address food insecurity, it needs to expand SNAP benefits by 30- to 40%. That could mean tens of billions of dollars a year, which is a lot of money. Though, Sara points out, it would be a tiny portion of America's $4 1/2 trillion federal budget.
GARCIA: All the same, despite SNAP's inadequacies, Sara still thinks it's one of the best programs we have for fighting hunger because it gets money very quickly to the people who need it most.
RAFIEYAN: And this is an idea that has been gaining some traction in recent years; that perhaps the best way to help people is to cut out the middleman of government bureaucracies and charitable organizations and just give people the resources to meet their needs right now.
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GARCIA: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Kiara Powell (ph) and Brittany Cronin. Brittany Cronin also fact-checked the episode. THE INDICATOR's editor is Paddy Hirsch. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.
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