President Biden has made significant changes to the food safety net during his first 89 days in office. During his campaign, he called on then President Donald Trump at the height of the pandemic to work with Congress to enact the bipartisan FEMA Empowering Essential Deliveries (FEED) Act—which would temporarily allow the federal government to pay restaurants to prepare meals for the hungry without requiring cash-strapped states to provide any matching dollars—and to increase SNAP and nutritional support benefits. Once Biden took office, he started working with Congress to help support the 80 million Americans affected by food insecurity.
Since he’s taken office, the USDA has announced it is now providing $1 billion per month in additional food assistance to low-income households via new emergency allotments. This results in an additional $95 per month in emergency allotments for America’s lowest-income households.
In response to the soaring levels of child hunger, Congress has also created a program called Pandemic-EBT, which aims to compensate for the declining reach of school meals by placing their value on electronic cards that families can use in grocery stores. Although the plan had a slow start, the Brookings Institution found evidence that the new payment card system helped offset the loss of school subsidized meals. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (or WIC) also started subsidizing produce for low-income Americans.
Each of these programs will amount to a 40% increase in total food benefits. On top of the benefits directed at individuals, the government will spend more to support food institutions. Tom Vilsack, the agriculture secretary under Biden, outlined a number of recent initiatives that will include new subsidies to food banks, an outreach campaign in WIC, food aid for homeless young adults, grants for Puerto Rico and the Mariana Islands, and efforts to deliver more nutritious food.
The pressing question today is whether this increase in spending will stick around. As the vaccine rollout ramps up, the prospects of a swift economic recovery are beginning to seem more feasible. Should the government maintain this spending 5 or even 10 years from now?
The progressive wing of the Democratic Party would argue yes. They would argue that Pandemic-EBT should become permanent because child hunger routinely rises when schools close for summer. Many Democrats would also argue that SNAP benefits in normal times aren’t adequate. Elaine Waxman of the Urban Institute and two colleagues found benefits would have to grow 27 percent (or $15 billion a year in pre-crisis terms) to meet minimal needs. Furthermore, before the pandemic, 54% of SNAP-recipient households still report being food insecure.
Fiscally conservative politicians would disagree. They would argue that the United States has already spent unprecedented sums of money to expand it’s programs and that additional aid from the Biden administration is superfluous and will only drive deficits through the roof—an outcome that will harm low income families.
Although we can’t say for certain which side of the aisle is correct, we can look at this period as a test run. The government and federal reserve have spent over $7.1 trillion together since the start of the COVID pandemic, and they show no sign of slowing down any time soon. If this experiment improves the lives of Americans, this increase in aid will likely stick around, but if it causes the economy to implode and inflation to run out of control, a stricter welfare policy will be adopted instead.