Amid a Deadly Virus and Crippled Economy, One Form of Aid Has Proved Reliable: Food Stamps

Joseph Baker near his home in Altamonte Springs, Fla., July 17, 2020. Baker, who was laid off in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, had to apply for food stamps. (Charlotte Kesl/The New York Times)
Joseph Baker near his home in Altamonte Springs, Fla., July 17, 2020. Baker, who was laid off in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, had to apply for food stamps. (Charlotte Kesl/The New York Times)

WASHINGTON — More than 6 million people enrolled in food stamps in the first three months of the coronavirus pandemic, an unprecedented expansion that is likely to continue as more jobless people deplete their savings and billions in unemployment aid expires this month.

From February to May, the program grew by 17{c33c21346ff5e26ab8e0ae3d29ae4367143f0d27c235e34c392ea37decdb8bed}, about three times faster than in any previous three months, according to state data collected by The New York Times. Its rapid expansion is a testament to both the hardship imposed by the pandemic and the importance of a program that until recently drew conservative attack.

Among the 42 states for which The Times collected data, caseloads grew in all but one. The rolls have surged across Appalachian hamlets, urban cores like Miami and Detroit, and white-picket-fence suburbs outside Atlanta and Houston, rising faster in rich counties than in poor ones, as the downturn caused by the virus claimed the restaurant, cleaning and gig economy jobs that support the affluent.

Food stamps — formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — support young and old, healthy and disabled, the working and the unemployed, making it the closest thing the United States has to a guaranteed income. Though administered by states, the benefits are paid by the federal government, with no spending cap, and the program has largely avoided the delays that have plagued unemployment insurance.

“SNAP is the universal safety net,” said Diane Schanzenbach, an economist at Northwestern University.

After long pushing to reduce SNAP usage, claiming it promotes dependency and waste, the Trump administration eased administrative rules during the pandemic to speed enrollment. Two Republican-led states, Florida and Georgia, have expanded caseloads the most, and state officials from both parties have called the program an essential anti-poverty tool.

“SNAP is very well suited to quickly meet the needs of low-income individuals,” said Tom C. Rawlings, the director of the Division of Family and Children Services in Georgia, where the program grew 34{c33c21346ff5e26ab8e0ae3d29ae4367143f0d27c235e34c392ea37decdb8bed}, with double-digit increases in all 159 counties. “It is also pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into the economy.”

Though benefits normally vary with income, Congress temporarily expanded the program in March by offering all recipients the maximum aid for their household size ($509 for three people). As a result, spending, which totaled about $60 billion last year, has grown even faster than caseloads. But unlike in the last recession, the size of the top payment did not grow, and despite the expanding rolls, surveys show elevated rates of hunger, especially among families with children.

Those turning to SNAP in recent months include people as varied as Musad Nasser, a Detroit truck driver, originally from Yemen, who quit for fear of infecting an asthmatic young son; Kelly Cintron, a single mother in Orlando, Florida, recovering from her fiancé’s suicide; and Desiree Rasmer, who lost her job managing an Ann Arbor, Michigan, chiropractic clinic and hopes to become a social worker to promote “holistic healing and restorative justice.”

Especially grateful was Joseph Baker, 48, a firearms instructor laid off from an Orlando pawnshop and firing range. A single father raising two big-eating teenagers, Baker exhausted his savings and watched his shelves dwindle as he waited two months for unemployment aid. When he turned to SNAP, it arrived in a week — a safety net beneath the safety net.

“Oh my God, dude, I didn’t have to worry about whether I can feed my kids,” Baker said, recalling his relief. “I don’t want to be dramatic and say it saved my life, but it saved my mental life, ’cause I was stressed out, man.”

Thirty states have experienced double-digit growth, and usage has risen in all 133 counties in the three West Coast states. About 50,000 people have joined the rolls in the county that includes Atlanta, more than 100,000 in the county that includes Detroit and more than 200,000 in those that include Miami and Los Angeles.

About 43 million people — roughly 1 of every 8 Americans — now receive SNAP, The Times found. That is well below the peak, nearly 48 million, reached after the Great Recession. But unless Congress acts this month, about 20 million Americans will lose a $600 weekly bonus to unemployment checks. Since that bonus disqualifies most people from SNAP, its elimination could add millions to the rolls.

To glimpse the program’s reach, consider Michigan, where caseloads have grown 30{c33c21346ff5e26ab8e0ae3d29ae4367143f0d27c235e34c392ea37decdb8bed}, spending has grown 90{c33c21346ff5e26ab8e0ae3d29ae4367143f0d27c235e34c392ea37decdb8bed} and 1.5 million people collected benefits in May. The rolls have grown rapidly in Wayne County, which includes Detroit, but faster in four contiguous counties — blue-collar Macomb, and Livingston, Oakland and Washtenaw, the three wealthiest in the state.

They have soared in western Kent County, which includes Grand Rapids, a manufacturing hub for office furniture, and in vacation destinations like Grand Traverse County, where SNAP growth exceeded 40{c33c21346ff5e26ab8e0ae3d29ae4367143f0d27c235e34c392ea37decdb8bed}.

Robert Gordon, who runs the state Department of Health and Human Services, cast the expansion as a program victory and credited the effort of hundreds of employees working from home. “In a time of unprecedented hardship, we are honored to be able to get families help they need,” he said.

In Georgia, SNAP grew by nearly 40{c33c21346ff5e26ab8e0ae3d29ae4367143f0d27c235e34c392ea37decdb8bed} in Fulton County, which includes Atlanta, but even more in affluent surrounding counties like Cobb (55{c33c21346ff5e26ab8e0ae3d29ae4367143f0d27c235e34c392ea37decdb8bed} and Fayette (61{c33c21346ff5e26ab8e0ae3d29ae4367143f0d27c235e34c392ea37decdb8bed}).

No state has seen more growth than Florida, which has added nearly 1 million residents to the rolls. Among the new centers of SNAP usage is Orlando, where a region known for flights of fantasy became a center of nutritional need. With amusement parks closed and tourism vanishing, caseloads in Orange and Osceola counties rose more than 50{c33c21346ff5e26ab8e0ae3d29ae4367143f0d27c235e34c392ea37decdb8bed}, adding nearly 125,000 people.

Many people turned to the program while awaiting jobless aid. When MaKayela Johnson, a single mother in Newport, Kentucky, was furloughed from her job in a medical office, she waited two months for jobless benefits, which arrived the day she returned to work. But a week after applying for SNAP, she had a debit card that allowed her to buy $355 of food at virtually any grocery store.

“It was the first safety net, because that’s what I could count on,” she said.

Along with milk and bread, the program often brings psychological relief. “It was such a weight lifted off my shoulders,” said Gabriel Ocasio Mejias, 28, who lost a sales clerk job at the Orlando airport, in what he called retaliation for union organizing. “When I got the card I teared up.” Before it arrived, he was forced to discard items in the checkout line, an experience he called “shameful and embarrassing.”

Cintron, the single mother in Florida, hesitated to use a program she associates with dependency. She spent 20 years as a job coach in the Orlando public schools before following her fiancé to Texas and returning after his death. “It was emotionally hard to apply — I’ve always had a job — but I had to do this for my kids,” she said.

But others say SNAP brings independence. Johnson, the nursing aide who caught the coronavirus, lives with her middle-class parents in The Woodlands, Texas, outside Houston, but does not like to rely on them. “I like doing for myself,” she said.

A SNAP expansion played a major role in the last recession, when a temporary increase in the maximum benefit helped restrain the rise in hunger. But a weak recovery followed and caseloads kept growing for years.

A backlash followed, with some conservatives arguing the program discouraged work. President Donald Trump has spent years trying to cut eligibility and expand work rules, and in February he called the ebbing rolls a hallmark of his success. From 48 million in 2012, the rolls fell to 37 million before the pandemic, mostly because of falling unemployment, but are now slightly higher than when Trump took office, the Times analysis shows.

To speed enrollment, the Trump administration let states suspend reviews of existing cases and focus on new applications. It also let states enroll people without interviews. Federal officials have now let both forms of latitude lapse, which some states fear will cause delays, especially with expiring unemployment aid likely to increase SNAP usage.

“I’m worried about our ability to process the applications,” said Duke Storen, who runs Virginia’s program.

Gordon, the Michigan official, said, “I would expect to see growth for a significant period of time.”

Despite SNAP’s expansion, surveys continue to show high rates of “food insecurity” — reduced quality of food or uncertain access — as well as outright hunger. A new survey by the Urban Institute found 17.7{c33c21346ff5e26ab8e0ae3d29ae4367143f0d27c235e34c392ea37decdb8bed} of adults report food insecurity, much higher than precrisis levels. The rate for Black people and Latinos was about twice as high as for whites.

“There’s no question that both food insecurity and hunger have risen,” said Elaine Waxman, a co-author of the study.

Johnson, the furloughed medical office assistant in Kentucky, said the $355 she received (the maximum for two people) shrank her food budget by about a third, and she ate less to feed her 5-year-old son. “I would buy him what I knew he would eat and skip breakfast myself,” she said.

As Congress returns this week, Democrats want to increase the maximum benefit by 15{c33c21346ff5e26ab8e0ae3d29ae4367143f0d27c235e34c392ea37decdb8bed}, noting that food prices have risen to the highest level in nearly a half-century.

“SNAP goes a long way towards alleviating hunger but doesn’t eliminate it because the benefits aren’t high enough,” said Dottie Rosenbaum of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive group that has done a new caseload study. “Omitting a boost in SNAP benefits would be an unconscionable failure.”

Angela Rachidi of the conservative American Enterprise Institute has criticized the program’s past growth, saying it needed to do more to promote work. She welcomed the current expansion, saying SNAP “is responding to the economic downturn, as it should be.”

“But over the long term, as the economy improves, we don’t want SNAP to discourage people from taking jobs,” she added.

Those who fear the program may prove too enticing might note the relief of Baker, the Florida firearms instructor. “Now that I have it, I’m like, ‘Dude, can I keep it?’” he said. But asked if he had any other comments, Baker added just one: a plea for a job. “If anybody needs a set of strong hands, please send them my way.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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