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America’s Pathetic Economic Safety Net

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A report on just how little SNAP covers.

More than 43 million Americans participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (formerly known as the Food Stamp program). But even the maximum benefit in 2020 fell short of low-income meal costs in 96 percent of US counties.

In December 2020, Congress approved a temporary 15 percent increase in maximum SNAP benefits; the American Rescue Plan Act passed in March 2021 extended that increase to September 2021. But even with this boost, the maximum SNAP benefit still falls short in 41 percent of US counties.

In 2020, before the 15 percent increase, we found the following:The maximum SNAP benefit did not cover the cost of a low-income meal in 96 percent of US counties.

The 20 counties with the largest gap between maximum SNAP benefits and the average cost of a low-income meal include high-cost urban areas, such as New York and San Francisco, as well as smaller rural counties with resort towns, such as Blaine County, ID; El Dorado County, CA; and Leelanau County, MI. In these 20 counties, average low-income meal costs range from $3.23 to $6.16, or 64 to 213 percent higher than the SNAP benefit per meal.

Nationally, the maximum SNAP benefit fell short of meeting monthly low-income meal costs by $39.99 per person. Among the 10 percent of counties with the highest average meal costs, the monthly shortfall is $69.75 per person.

After the temporary 15 percent increase, we found a few changes:The maximum SNAP benefit does not cover the cost of a low-income meal in 40.5 percent of US counties.

On average, even with a 15 percent increase in benefits, the gap between maximum SNAP benefits and the average cost of a low-income meal is 13 cents. In New York City, increased SNAP benefits still fall short by $1.73 per low-income meal.

Congress expands the safety net to heights not seen in decades and it leads to a situation where people still go hungry because it was so pathetic to start with is not a great place for this nation to be. We have a long ways to go and a short time to get there.

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