Op-ed: SNAP Could Feed an Economic Recovery During and After the Pandemic

With agreement on a stimulus plan uncertain, food policy experts argue that increasing and expanding SNAP amid coronavirus would help those at risk in an impending recession.



To stave off an economic free-fall from the COVID-19 pandemic, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are still debating whether to provide cash payments for every American. Congress prevented Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) eligibility restrictions during a public health emergency, and gave states some flexibility to ask for emergency allotments, but did not directly increase benefits.

But as Congress considers additional stimulus measures, another efficient and equitable vehicle for economic stabilization should be on the table: raising food assistance benefits for the more than 36 million Americans who currently receive SNAP and reversing Trump administration regulations to reduce the SNAP rolls. Notably, last week a federal judge blocked the administration’s plan to eliminate waivers from a work and job training requirement, which would have removed some 700,000 able-bodied adults off SNAP.

As the nation’s largest food assistance program, SNAP provides individuals an average of $122 per month ($240 per household). SNAP dollars can only be used for groceries prepared at home and are spent—almost as soon as they are received—in supermarkets and grocery stores across the nation. In fiscal year 2019, SNAP disbursed about $54 billion in benefits to the nation’s most vulnerable.

While the primary goal of SNAP is to ensure that low-income households do not go hungry, the program is also a very effective economic stimulus. Every SNAP dollar redeemed at a local grocer generates income for farmers, food processors, transportation companies, store cashiers, and many other food-related businesses. Using SNAP for food frees up a household’s remaining cash for other necessities, which support non-food businesses in local communities. Studies have shown that every $1 increase in SNAP benefits generates more than $1.50 in economic activity.

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The economic impacts are significant. Because low-income households spend their benefits soon after they receive them (97 percent of benefits are spent within a month), SNAP dollars quickly infuse desperately needed cash into local communities at a much faster rate than dollars received by more affluent people, who tend to save some of their extra income. One U.S. Department of Agriculture economic model estimates that $1 billion in new SNAP benefits issued during a recession raises GDP by $1.54 billion and supports 13,560 jobs, particularly in the manufacturing, trade, and transportation sectors.

SNAP was used to stimulate the economy during the Great Recession, when the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act increased the maximum SNAP benefit by 13.6 percent. The additional money was added to recipients’ electronic benefits transfer cards just two weeks after the law was enacted. As a result of this boost to SNAP, an estimated 1 million additional Americans were kept out of poverty.

The economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic demands aggressive responses. Directing stimulus money into the SNAP program by dramatically increasing benefits would create large economic impacts. Continuing to allow states to waive work requirements for able-bodied adults would prevent hundreds of thousands from being thrown off SNAP. (On Thursday, the administration signaled that it might not appeal a judge’s ruling blocking the work requirement from taking effect.) Increasing and expanding SNAP would help the neediest Americans who are most likely to bear the brunt of the impending recession.

Such changes would not only support economic recovery but would also improve public health by ensuring that low-income families have enough food to remain healthy throughout this crisis.

Top photo CC-licensed by Walmart.

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View Comments (10)

  1. Jean M Otterson
    Monday, March 23rd, 2020
    Please remember the seniors that hardly receive any snap benefits they may starve myself included
  2. Tuesday, March 24th, 2020
    How do you qualify for snap thank you
    • Saturday, March 28th, 2020
      To get SNAP benefits, you must apply in the state in which you currently live and you must meet certain requirements, including resource and income limits.

      More information can be found here: https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/recipient/eligibility

      In California, where I live, we call is CalFresh, and more application information is here: https://www.getcalfresh.org/
  3. Paula Turek
    Tuesday, March 24th, 2020
    Please increase the amount of $ for the SNAP program. No one can eat healthy for that paltry amount.
  4. Dana Smith
    Saturday, March 28th, 2020
    I'm on disability I make about $5 too much to receive Food Stamps during this time of Crisis will I be able to receive food stamps I live in South Carolina
  5. Rebecca Brewington
    Monday, March 30th, 2020
    Why aren't senior citizens getting snap benefits from the stimulus fund, we have depleted our social security check trying to prepare for this virus. We only budget $250.00 a month for 3. I know of people who are selling their stamps for money, yet we who need it don't qualify. Help me understand this.
  6. Jest
    Monday, March 30th, 2020
    In general, SNAP benefits decrease when cash income goes up and increase when cash income goes down.

    For seniors and disabled individuals on a fixed income that is not affected by the recent business closures and such, an increase in SNAP will be a much needed change.

    Recipients who were working but have since been laid off or had their hours cut will see an increase in SNAP benefits once they report these changes to their cash income. Now, that will help them buy more food but it will do nothing to help them deal with their cash expenses, which have stayed the same.

    When your income goes down so low that you can no longer afford your rent, or your phone bill, or toilet paper, is your first reaction to increase your food budget?

    It's not that I don't think more people need and deserve to get more SNAP benefits. They most certainly do. And SNAP benefits can be a way of ensuring people have money to be spent on food at all.

    But food is not the only thing low income families and individuals need to remain healthy during this crisis and I just wish that supporters of increased SNAP benefits were aware of that reality.

    Having a lot of money to buy food but no place to cook or store food limits your options to mostly processed food with little nutritional value. Kind of defeats the purpose of the program.

    It also increases the likelihood that SNAP benefits will be sold, decreasing the amount of food that person can buy by at least twice as much as the cash they get for it. Studies that have been done on this subject show that the majority of the cash from transactions like this go to necessities that SNAP will not buy.

    An increase in SNAP benefits will help many people, sure, but it is not a one-size-fits-all solution. By it's very nature it can't be.
  7. Teri
    Tuesday, March 31st, 2020
    Hi I hope they increase the Snap program
    There are so many single mothers with children & seniors who really need it.
    Meat prices are so expensive I only buy on sale
    Thank you Teri
  8. Wednesday, April 1st, 2020
    SNAP Recipients should be given stimulus check. We are the ones that need it the most.I ! will spend it wisely.
  9. Tanya Traykovski
    Thursday, April 2nd, 2020
    You make a compelling case and I hope they implement this.