Melissa Harris-Perry: It's The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. On Wednesday, 32 million people saw a noticeable reduction in their food assistance dollars as the federal SNAP emergency allotments expired.
Speaker 2: If you receive SNAP benefits, you will see a change starting in March 2023. The Federal SNAP emergency allotment is ending. This means you will no longer receive the second monthly payment that has been in place since April 2020.
Melissa: That was Utah's Department of Workforce Services getting the word out to families across the state. Utah is just one of 32 states that will now see the future effects of this decision. Meanwhile, in the 18 states that have already ended their emergency SNAP programs, food banks are reporting an increase in demand. Vince Hall, Chief Officer at Feeding America said this to C-Span.
Vince Hall: Georgia ended its emergency allotments in May of last year, and they saw a 34% increase in demand at the food bank when the emergency allotments were terminated.
Melissa: The end of emergency SNAP allotments comes at a precarious time for many families who've been feeling the surge of inflation prices.
President Biden: I know the families all across America are hurting because of inflation. I understand what it feels like. I come from a family where when the price of gas or food went up, we felt it. It was a discussion at the kitchen table. I want every American to know that I'm taking inflation very seriously and it's my top for domestic priority.
Melissa: While President Biden focuses on his top domestic priority, we're going to take a look back at our conversation we had last month here on The Takeaway between Bridget Bergen and Dr. Jamila Michener.
Brigid Bergen: What happens next for people who simply cannot afford to buy food anymore?
Jamila Michener: What happens next is essentially, suffering and deprivation. People often have to make impossible trade-offs.
Melissa: Jamila is an Associate Professor in the Department of Government at Cornell University, the Co-Director of the Cornell Center for Health Equity, and the author of Fragmented Democracy: Medicaid, Federalism, and Unequal Politics. Let's take a listen.
Brigid: Professor Michener, thanks for coming back to The Takeaway.
Jamila: I'm happy to be back.
Brigid: Professor, can you spell this out for us? What does this mean for a family of three, say in early 2022 versus now?
Jamila: Essentially, it means that people will have many fewer resources for feeding themselves and for purchasing, not just sufficient food, but healthy food which often is more expensive. In that time, the cost of food and the cost of living more generally, the costs for things like housing have gone up. The emergency SNAP benefits that the US government was providing people allowed some way of mitigating increasing costs, although for many people, even those emergency benefits weren't sufficient.
Now, without those benefits, there's really nothing to protect people from increased cost in the face of needs that have not changed. People still have to eat, they still have to feed their families, but now, they simply have fewer resources for doing so.
Brigid: SNAP benefits have been limited and curtailed in multiple ways over the past 10 to 15 years. Why is it so popular to limit access to food assistance? What are our beliefs about who uses it and why?
Jamila: I think many social benefits, whether it's cash assistance or medical assistance, it's different for different benefits but food assistance is among those that we think people, many people simply are not deserving of. We think maybe they're not working hard enough. We think that they're overly reliant on the government and that we need to make sure that they're independent, and so on and so forth. The reality is that many SNAP beneficiaries work and that many of those that don't because they can't.
They're caring for children, for elderly folks. They're facing illnesses. Most people want to eat and do everything they can to be able to. For those who don't, they usually are in genuine need, but our ethos, and ethic of hard work that is connected to notions of deserving this, really stop us from being able to implement policy that recognizes those needs.
Brigid: The expanded child tax credit was wildly popular in part because it was not means tested. Does the Biden administration have any ability to win a legislative fight about the tax credit in the current 118th congress?
Jamila: That's the million-dollar question. I'd like to say there's always a chance but it's an extraordinarily difficult uphill climb, in part, because there are just a handful of Senators often that have the power in their hands to make these decisions.
Speaker 3: My colleagues, unfortunately, have used the public health emergency in large part not to protect the public from COVID, but to promote the big spending, big government bailout agenda.
Speaker 4: Instead of lifting people out of poverty, many of our welfare programs are actually trapping people in poverty.
Speaker 5: We're no longer going to measure compassion by the number of programs or the number of people on those programs, but by the number of people we help get off of those programs.
Jamila: Given the structure of our political institutions, and those are the very people that believe what is stopping us in the first place. That people aren't deserving, that they're going to take advantage of these benefits, that these benefits are going to stop them from working. None of those things are true empirically. They're not evidence-based, but they're ideas that stop us from being able to gain the political support we need.
Brigid: Quick break more on the end of-pandemic era food assistance right after this. We're back and still talking with Jamila Michener of Cornell University about SNAP benefits. For the sake of scale, how big is this program relative to the federal budget? We're in this moment where the GOP is demanding spending offsets to raise the debt ceiling. How could SNAP be sucked into the politics of the debt ceiling fight?
Jamila: What's interesting is that on the one hand, SNAP is a huge benefit because it serves over 40 million people. It's very big in many people's lives but relative to the federal budget, SNAP is really a drop in the bucket. We spend about 113, somewhere in that zone, billion dollars a year on SNAP, and I get it to a regular person. That sounds a lot, like a lot, but compared to our federal budget, that is really a drop in the bucket. We may say that it's about some fiscal responsibility, but at the end of the day, programs like SNAP are not what is draining our federal budget.
We're spending much, much more on many other things on defense spending and many other things, and feeding people is really not something we're investing a lot in as a country writ large.
Brigid: This is not a red-state-blue-state program. This is a benefit that people across the country are using and are in need of.
Jamila: Absolutely. I just completed a research project where we were interviewing people in Kentucky about their experiences with these benefits, so not a blue state. They were saying how important the benefits were to them, how difficult it was when they lost them. Some states like Kentucky have already ended these additional allotments. Some of our fellow citizens in other states have already experienced what everyone else is going to be experiencing soon, many of them in red states.
When you talk to those people, I spent time talking to hundreds of them, they're suffering the same pain. Being hungry in a red state and being hungry in a blue state are not functionally different.
Brigid: Some cities and programs across the country have experimented with direct cash payments to families which is what the expanded child tax credit is, how much more or less effective are the cash programs versus targeted assistance, like SNAP?
Jamila: Well, the cash programs have been shown in some cases to be quite effective. They can help people in a range of ways including ways that we might not have anticipated. They help people to be able to be more healthy, children attend school, more all sorts of effects. Often what we need is a complementary approach to make sure that people have the full range of resources that they need to thrive. There's no reason to think about this kind of things in opposition to each other. Sometimes one kind of funding, like cash assistance can make another kind of funding, like food assistance, more effective in people's lives because they have the full range of support that they need.
Brigid: In the implementation of Social Security, our country made an enormous dent in the proportion of seniors living in poverty. Can you imagine a similar ability to address child poverty long-term through federal policy?
Jamila: Absolutely. We did it. We did it with the expanded Child Tax Credit. We saw tremendous drops in child poverty. We saw really measurable improvements in people's lives. We've done it in the past with Social Security, we've done it in the present with the expanded Child Tax Credit. It's not a matter of if we can, it's a matter of whether we're willing to. It's a matter of political will.
Brigid: Professor, we heard the voices of our listeners who are experiencing the fear of when this benefit ends and what it will mean for their lives. Can you talk about what happens next for people who simply cannot afford to buy food anymore?
Jamila: What happens next is essentially suffering and deprivation. People often have to make impossible trade-offs. That might mean eating less which, of course, is not good for health. To the extent that we're worried about people working hard and having personal responsibility, people who are unhealthy are not going to be able to flourish in the labor market. People also make other trade-offs. Maybe you buy food and you can't pay your rent, and so now, we're facing the problem of eviction. People are just more precarious.
Maybe they draw down their very few savings to buy food. When an emergency arises, they don't have savings to help tie them over in that emergency. There are a range of spillover effects. You don't go to the doctor because you don't have any savings and you don't have money because you're spending all of that on food and you don't want to get medical costs popping up.
There are so many wide-ranging spillover effects that this is truly, even if you did a cost-benefit analysis, this is truly senseless. It's not helping us. It will not save money. It will aggravate many people's pain.
Melissa: Jamila Michener is Associate Professor of Government at Cornell University and Co-Director of the Cornell Center for Health Equity. A big thanks again to Brigid Bergen for hosting that fantastic conversation here on The Takeaway. You'll always be part of The Takeaway family with us, Brigid.
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