The Coronavirus Outbreak

Earlier this month, a volunteer distributed a gallon of milk at a food bank in Tampa, Fla. More than 130 million Americans received a government stimulus check of $1,200 but many still face job loss and food insecurity.

Over the past two months, Americans have discovered that the nation’s safety net is full of holes.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, 40 million people lived in poverty and 78% of Americans lived paycheck to paycheck. Now we have an additional 30 million newly unemployed people. Unemployment benefit websites have crashed, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) grocery benefit cards largely cannot be used online, and millions with employer-connected health insurance no longer have their coverage. If this crisis is a test, America is failing miserably.

But the problem lies much deeper. According to the federal poverty guidelines, a family of three making less than $21,330 is considered to be living in poverty. Yet a family of three making double that amount still would struggle to make ends meet in most of America. Safety net programs typically have an eligibility creeping up to 200% of the poverty line, differing for each state. People need to nearly hit rock bottom to be eligible for benefits, and the benefits received are so minimal that while they might help people “escape” poverty by getting just over the poverty line, they do not truly allow families to break out of the cycle.

People do not get ahead by receiving the bare minimum. They get ahead when they are treated fairly as an essential part of the American economy. Over the past few weeks, while more than 130 million Americans received a one-time stimulus check for $1,200, the wealthiest reaped tens of billions of dollars in tax breaks. While 30 million Americans lost their jobs, billionaire wealth grew by $282 billion. While Main Street applied for small business loans, the coffers quickly dried up as independently-owned corporate franchises ate up the money.

This crisis, as bad as it is, is an opportunity to secure the safety net and prevent such fallout the next time a disaster strikes. To help people make ends meet, Congress must raise SNAP benefits — the federal food assistance program — by at least 15%. By increasing the maximum SNAP benefit, Congress can protect people from hunger and help stimulate the economy. Providing more money through SNAP will give low-income Americans breathing room to pay their bills and reduce the strain on food banks, which are stretched to the brink.

On average, for every meal that a food bank can provide, SNAP provides 10 meals. It also will help the nearly 40% of families who did not receive increases via emergency allotments through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. Boosting SNAP’s maximum allotment will increase all SNAP households’ benefits, including the poorest households, and will last beyond the public health emergency.

While these increases would be helpful, they all would be for naught if President Donald Trump’s proposed rules from 2019 to cut SNAP are implemented. Most concerning is the proposal to gut a state’s option to use broad-based categorical eligibility, which would eliminate SNAP for more than three million people and jeopardize nearly one million children’s access to free school meals. This is no time to cut safety net programs and reduce eligibility. If anything, eligibility should be increased, especially in states that do not have categorical eligibility implemented.

As we tighten our belts for the worst recession in American history, we cannot forget something learned from the Great Recession of 2007-09: SNAP is one of the most effective forms of economic stimulus. Every dollar in SNAP benefits generates $1.50 for the local economy. SNAP dollars help grocery stores keep the lights on and buy more products, they help keep truck drivers employed as they transport food from farm to store and they help farmers keep earning.

It’s a radical theory of trickle-up economics.

This is why Congress should leave the SNAP benefit increases in place while also pushing for changes to the federal poverty guidelines to truly promote the general welfare of all Americans. Enhancing SNAP benefits is a quick and effective way to pump money into the economy while promoting long-term food security for all Americans. By strengthening the safety net to help those who need it now and those who will need it later, America can set a better course for the future of our neighborhoods.

It isn’t time to go back to normal. It’s time to go forward instead.

Salaam Bhatti is a public benefits attorney at the Virginia Poverty Law Center and director of Virginia Hunger Solutions. He also is a member of the RTD Opinions’ Community Advisory Board. Contact him at: salaam@vplc.org

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