Blue states look to cover gap when food assistance bump expires

The federal government is rolling back a Covid-related grocery supplement at the end of the month.
Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey (D) (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Blue state governors are throwing their weight behind new food aid programs to avoid a “hunger cliff” when the federal government rolls back a Covid-related grocery supplement at the end of the month.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) signed a bill this month that almost doubled the state minimum Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefit, calling it nation-leading legislation. Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey (D) filed an emergency supplemental budget that would include $130 million in extra SNAP money.

In Washington State, first lady Trudi Inslee testified in favor of a bill that would provide an additional $28 million in food assistance as soon as April.

“Many people find it hard to believe that we are at a food crisis in our state,” Inslee, the wife of Gov. Jay Inslee (D), said at the hearing. “This is a very serious, real issue in our state.”

The three measures are designed to soften the blow on low-income households and reduce pressure on local food assistance programs after March 1, when a federal allotment that has been in place since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic is cut off.

The allotment provided at least $95 a month in extra benefits for SNAP recipients, increasing monthly stipends by about half of the $200 average before 2020.

“No one should ever have to wonder where their next meal will come from,” Murphy said in a Feb. 8 statement.

States were initially allowed to phase out that allotment after federal or state emergency declarations related to the pandemic expired, generally later this spring. But the end date was moved up in exchange for other nutrition programs that Democrats wanted in the federal government funding package signed by President Joe Biden in December.

The new deadline has raised alarms on the left and added to fissures between red and blue states in how they interpret the economic impact of emergency aid measures put in place during the pandemic.

Democrats and anti-hunger advocates argue that the extra SNAP spending, combined with other Covid-era measures such as universal free school meals and the child tax credit, bolstered the economy, helped the country quickly rebound from the pandemic recession and contributed to a historic decrease in poverty. They say that allowing those programs to come to an end, especially as grocery prices remain stubbornly high, represents a step backward.

“We knew that this was going to be a temporary fix, but what we did see — and I think the states saw this as well — was that because those emergency allotments were in place, food insecurity did not go up.” said Eric Mitchell, the executive director of the Alliance to End Hunger, a group of more than 100 faith-based, nonprofit, academic, and private sector organizations.

Conservatives say those benefits were never meant to be permanent, question whether they contributed to labor shortages and inflation, and prefer the money be used in different ways.

“I would rather see a lot of the government efforts going into helping folks get a job rather than helping them not work,” said Brandon Scholz, a Republican strategist and chairman of the Wisconsin grocers’ association. “There are plenty of jobs out there, lot’s of jobs that aren’t being filled.”

Eighteen states ended their allotments early. That includes Georgia, where the end of the program was triggered when Gov. Brian Kemp (R) declared an end to the state’s public health emergency in June.

Two months later, Kemp, who was facing a competitive re-election campaign, announced that he would spend up to $1.2 billion in federal Covid-19 aid on payments of $350 apiece to more than 3 million Georgians who benefit from Medicaid, subsidized child health insurance, food stamps or cash welfare assistance.

Those payments were not enough to offset significant increases in demand for food assistance, said Kyle Waide, president and CEO of the Atlanta Community Food Bank, where he said household visits have increased by more than 40% since January 2022. Waide said he would like to see state lawmakers expand SNAP eligibility and pass other measures that could help low and middle income families, including a bipartisan proposal that would exempt diapers from a 4% sales tax.

“Now is just not the time for austerity,” Waide said.

“I understand that we’ve got inflation, and we’re trying to get the economy kind of cooled off a little bit. I get all that,” Waide said. “But what we’re seeing right now is just a huge increase in vulnerability across the community. And our belief is that now is an important time to continue to provide the support families need to get through this kind of inflationary crisis.”

Anti-hunger advocates are also seeking an increase in federal SNAP spending when Congress negotiates a new farm bill this year. The bill funds SNAP and other federal food assistance programs and will need to be reauthorized when it expires in September. In the past, sticking points have included demands for work requirements for SNAP recipients.

New Jersey is the first state to set a minimum monthly SNAP benefit. Murphy said when he signed the bill that there were ample resources in the current budget to cover the increase and that he would propose dedicating about $32 million to cover the program’s cost in his upcoming budget.

In Massachusetts, Healey’s emergency spending bill, which must be approved by state legislators, would provide SNAP recipients with 40% of their previous enhanced allotment for another three months in what her office called an “offramp” for more than 630,000 families who receive the benefits.

The extra spending in Washington State is also temporary. It is meant to make up for what the state will lose in federal enhanced benefits until the next budget passes in July, state Rep. Mia Gregerson (D), the House sponsor, said in an interview.

She said the bill is part of a larger effort to combat hunger in the state. Advocates in the legislature have dubbed themselves “food fighters.” The first lady’s support is a sign of the momentum behind more lasting changes.