Study: Food stamp benefits are already too low in 99% of US counties

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration recently proposed massive, across-the-board cuts to food stamps. But even without those cuts, a new analysis finds, current benefit amounts don't cover the full cost of meals for the vast majority of recipients.

The report, released this week by researchers at the Urban Institute and the University of Illinois, compared the maximum, per-meal benefit allowed by the food stamp program to the average cost of meals purchased by low-income households in the U.S. It found that, in 99 percent of counties, those meals regularly cost more than even the maximum benefit disbursed by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

In Manhattan, for instance — it's home to nearly a quarter-million food stamp recipients — SNAP allows $1.86 per meal, while the average meal costs $3.96.

The reports adds to a growing body of evidence that SNAP benefits might already be too small to fully prevent hunger and related health risks. In light of the Trump administration's calls to reduce spending in the program, advocates are pointing to studies like this to argue that the program cannot take further reductions.

"Benefits are already not meeting needs," said Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and the lead author of the report. "I can't expect less funding would improve that situation."

Waxman and others say the issue appears to be twofold: benefit amounts are stingy to begin with, and they're also not adjusted for regional food-cost differences.

It's a point that has been made before — most notably in a 2016 Institute of Medicine review, which recommended that the Agriculture Department raise its baseline benefit amount and grant more money to people living in expensive areas. But this new analysis goes a step further, trying to identify those specific areas and quantify the size of the gap.

To do that, Waxman estimated the cost of an average, home-prepared meal in every county in the contiguous U.S. While there isn't a single survey or database that contains that information, the researchers were able to extrapolate it by adjusting national grocery spending averages according to a county food-price index.

Once they had those figures, Waxman tallied the number of counties with average meal costs above $1.86, the food stamp program's maximum per-meal benefit. This is the amount given to households with no net income: In other words, it's intended to cover the family's full grocery costs, not just supplement other money that the family spends.

Despite that distinction, the researchers found that only 22 counties in the entire country have food costs low enough to squeeze beneath the $1.86 limit. On average, the cost of a meal is 27 percent higher than the maximum SNAP benefit.

In cities and remote rural counties, where food costs are higher, the gap is even worse: 136 percent in Crook County in Oregon and 113 percent in New York County in New York.


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