Rachel Metz and Hannah Francis
The DC Council recently agreed to allocate $40 million of any remaining excess revenue at the end of this fiscal year to helping District families put food on the table, through Give SNAP a Raise. However, “any remaining excess revenue” is hardly guaranteed. There could be any amount–or zero–excess revenue. And the full cost of funding Give SNAP a Raise–legislation that was unanimously passed in January–is $53 million, so even the maximum excess revenue wouldn’t completely cover the necessary expense of the program. Mayor Bowser and the Council must make it a priority to sustainably fund Give SNAP a Raise to help the District end food insecurity.
Funding Give SNAP a Raise would help District families in two ways. This legislation, introduced by Councilmember Christina Henderson increases the minimum benefit from a flat $30 a month for a household (less than a dollar a day) to 15% of what the federal government estimates to be monthly food costs for a household (the federal eligible maximum monthly allotment). This will add approximately an additional $26 of benefits per household member per month, for a total of slightly more than $100 per month for a family of four. The maximum monthly allotment is also adjusted with inflation annually, this year SNAP benefits were adjusted upwards by approximately 11% under President Biden. This would slightly offset some of the impacts of higher grocery store costs, and enable families to afford a few healthier food items, which are typically more expensive.
Participation in SNAP dramatically improves food security for families with children. Food insecurity in children fell by 34-38% when their household had been receiving SNAP benefits for only 6 months. This would make a significant difference for the 9,000 District children who live with relatives other than their parents, including the 5,000 children living with a grandparent, for whom the median household income is $39,000 a year. This is why the DC Department of Human Services must make improving SNAP enrollment rates and supporting enrollment a priority.
With the recently passed debt-ceiling deal shaped by Republicans, Congress is making it even more difficult for those who are hungry and need SNAP to access the food they need. The work requirement that had been a potential barrier for childless adults without disabilities who are under the age of 50 will now extend to age 54. While parents themselves are less likely to be subject to this requirement, many parents rely on unpaid child care from family and friends, and those family and friends may well lose their SNAP eligibility and may not be able to keep watching their friends’ and families’ children if they have to get a paid job in order to be able to eat.
Meanwhile, high inflation means that people need food support as much as ever. In April 2019 the average cost for a gallon of milk was $2.98. In April 2023, milk was up to $4.04. The percentage increase for a loaf of bread is even higher during that time: from $1.29 to $1.99. While inflation that high has everyone feeling the pain at check out, some District residents are better able to bear it than others. In spring 2023, only 2% of white households with children reported sometimes or often not having enough to eat, compared to 26% of Black households with children.
In the decade prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, enrollment of District children in SNAP plummeted, from 53,000 in fiscal year 2013 to 37,000 in 2019 because of improvements in the economy resulting in reduced need for assistance. Just prior to the pandemic that trend began to reverse, with 38,000 children enrolled in SNAP from October 2019 through February 2020, and of course the pandemic impacted enrollment by both increasing the need, as fewer people were able to work, and by reducing required paperwork thanks to federal pandemic-related flexibility. Fluctuations like these again underscore the importance of avoiding overly complicated requirements and minimizing paperwork for people to access the food support they need.
One reason people don’t access SNAP is that, for many eligible people, the benefit is so low–about $6 per day, not even two gallons of milk– that it isn’t worth the time it takes to do the paperwork. As a federal program, SNAP defines coverage and benefit allotment based on the federal poverty line. For a family of three, the cutoff for benefits is $29,940 annual gross income to receive the minimum allotment. People who the program considers “working poor” –who are eligible for SNAP and in a household where at least one person has income from a job–may often fall into this category. In the District in 2019 only 57% of eligible “working poor” people participated in SNAP, the third lowest rate of any state.
The Congressional mandate to increase the work requirement age to access SNAP is a step in the wrong direction, and perpetuates a false narrative that individuals who are food insecure are unemployed. In the District, 77% of food-insecure households include at least one person who is employed, compared to 74% of food-secure households, where at least one person is employed. One positive, however, is that Democrats included exemptions for people who are unhoused, veterans, and young people aging out of foster care, which may actually expand the number of people who are able to access SNAP. While that is helpful, we are still concerned about other District residents, particularly grandparents and other family members who take care of children while their parents work, but who don’t meet work requirements because they are not paid for their child care services.
As the recent federal legislation on food assistance continues our country’s harsh and unrealistic rules affecting families who are simply trying to make ends meet (something that DC Statehood would enable us to fight), the District must ensure its residents are able to stock the fridge and feed their families.