This Is How Government Is Supposed To Work

When giving poor families help buying food, should the government err on the side of caution (we don’t want money to be wasted) or generosity (we don’t want poor families to miss out)? The Biden administration knows the answer. From Politico:

Millions of low-income households with children are about to get more help buying groceries during the pandemic under a new policy released Friday by the Biden administration.

The backstory: Congress last spring launched Pandemic EBT, a program that aims to replace free and subsidized meals kids normally get at school. After schools broadly shut down last year, billions in aid was sent out to low-income families with school-aged children on debit-like EBT cards that can be used to buy food, but this school year the program has been bogged down in bureaucracy.

As POLITICO reported last month, the vast majority of households eligible for assistance haven’t seen any P-EBT payments several months into the school year, even though Congress re-upped the program in September — a failing that has kept roughly $2 billion in aid from going out to families each month.

The Agriculture Department, which oversees school meals and P-EBT, released guidance today that makes it easier for states to get aid to more families — and at a higher payment rate than under the [previous] administration.

“We want to put more money into the hands of people with kids,” said Stacy Dean, deputy under secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services.

What’s new: The changes unveiled Friday allow states to simplify how they figure out which children are eligible for benefits. The administration also outlined how to get P-EBT benefits to children who are younger than school age for the first time — an expansion of the program Congress asked for in last month’s aid package.

“We’re hoping that it will make it easier for states to implement the program,” Dean said in an interview.

The political context: Congress last month directed USDA to simplify the program, but Friday’s guidance and the increase in aid also marks a significant ideological shift at USDA.

During the Trump administration, the mandate was more to err on the side of caution, to put in place policies that focused more on individually verifying which households were eligible for P-EBT and for how many days — a task that was so administratively complicated with some schools open, some online-only, and some a hybrid, that it delayed the program from being implemented at all.

Under the Biden administration, the mandate is more to err on the side of getting more aid out quickly to as many low-income households as possible, even if it means inadvertently including some kids who are doing in-person learning.

What it means: The new policy means that soon many households that are already participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — still known to many as food stamps — will get additional benefits if they have children under the age of six.

It also means all families eligible for P-EBT will receive more aid. The reimbursement rate for replacing school meals is being bumped up by about $1 per day, bringing it up to $6.82 per child, per day of school missed — which adds up to just over $136 per child, per month. . . .

The USDA is encouraging states to retroactively apply the increase in benefits to the entire school year, which means that if a household already received P-EBT aid for August and September, for example, they could be owed nearly $20 more per child, per month.

Most states are not ready to roll: Just nine states and territories have been approved so far to restart paying out P-EBT benefits: Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Ohio, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, Vermont and Tennessee. [The Agriculture Department] said it has received plans from 22 states and territories, with more expected in the coming weeks.

Who Would Ever Use Food Stamps?

Funding for food stamps (the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) was increased a few years ago as part of the federal stimulus package. Unlike temporary tax cuts and business subsidies, which tend to last forever, the temporary increase in SNAP funding ended November 1st. 

The average monthly benefit per household two years ago was $293. Now it will be about $278, down 5%.There is an article here with more information, including an interactive map that allows you to see the numbers for your state. In Arizona, for example, 1.1 million people are covered by SNAP, including 538,000 children. 

It’s easy to demonize people you don’t know. Who are these slackers and scam artists who use food stamps anyway?

Sometimes they’re people you know or even people just like you. One of them writes:

People tend to think of food stamp recipients as poor, unfortunate, lazy, things along those lines. Be aware that recipients are also people trying to better themselves, simply needing some assistance to do so. Case in point: There was a time in the past when I was studying towards a graduate degree on a scholarship. The scholarship wasn’t nearly enough to live on. I did odd jobs for faculty to earn some money to help with my cash flow situation, but I also qualified for food stamps. With my level of income, I was eligible to be subsidized at 50%. That is, I could buy $1 of food stamps for 50 cents, up to a certain total amount of stamps every week, essentially doubling the amount of food I could buy and allowing me to devote more time studying towards a degree.

At the food stamp office, there were some other younger folks like myself, but most people were clearly much more desperate: people weak and elderly, women tending to babies and young children, disabled people. Standing on line waiting your turn, you could hear the transactions at the counter ahead of you, and could hear that many of these people were subsidized at 100%. I can guarantee you it has never occurred to me they should not have received this assistance. Today, to hear people say that citizens in need should be denied this kind of support, which simply enables them to buy enough food, well, I can’t decide if it makes me sad, angry, disgusted, depressed or all of those things.

It’s all of those things.

Meanwhile, You Don’t Want To Be Poor In America

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington think tank, has issued a report relating to “welfare reform”, the law that Congress passed and President Clinton signed 17 years ago.

Federal funding for the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program (what used to be called “Aid to Families with Dependent Children” or “welfare”), hasn’t increased since 1996, so inflation has eaten away at the program’s benefits:

Because TANF benefits have declined substantially in value, they do much less to help families escape deep poverty than they did in 1996.  With the exception of Maryland and Wyoming, a poor family relying solely on TANF to provide the basics for its children (such as during a period of joblessness, illness, or disability) in every state is further below the poverty line today than in 1996.

In fact, the inflation-adjusted value of benefits has decreased by more than 20% in 14 states and by more than 30% in 26 states.

Believe it or not, the monthly cash payment to an unemployed woman with two children in Mississippi is $170. Where I live, in one of the highest income states in the country, it’s $424 for a family of three, exactly what it was in 1996 (that’s a 32% decrease in real value).

Of course, there are other Federal programs for poor people, whether they have jobs or not, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or “food stamps”). But you can’t pay the rent or buy shoes with food stamps. Next week, by the way, people receiving food stamps will start getting less. A family of four, other things being equal, will receive $36 less per month.

The CPBP report (with charts):

The food stamp news: