Personal finance

Biden is boosting food benefits even more for the most vulnerable Americans

President Joe Biden signs an executive order after speaking during an event on his administration’s Covid-19 response with U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, left, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021.

Al Drago | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The more than 40 million Americans who rely on nutritional programs will soon see another bump in benefits.

President Joe Biden on Friday is expected to sign an executive order that will ask the U.S. Department of Agriculture to expand various food benefits programs. First, Biden will ask the USDA to consider allowing states to expand access to enhanced Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

In addition, Biden’s executive order also tasks the agency to examine increasing the Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer program, or P-EBT, by 15%. The program replaces school meals for low-income children and has been an important lifeline for many, as schools remain closed due to the pandemic.

“It’s recognition that the people suffering the most in the pandemic for a variety of reasons are children,” said Lauren Bauer, a fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution.

The executive order is one of many that Biden has signed in the earliest days of his administration, aimed at getting relief to those hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic.

A pervasive hunger problem

Biden’s executive order comes just after Congress expanded food benefits in the $900 billion stimulus package passed in December. That bill boosted monthly SNAP benefits by 15% for all recipients through June 2021, gave states additional flexibility to support the distribution of P-EBT and expanded the program to children younger than 6 years old through September 2021.

Food insecurity, especially for families with young children, has been a huge issue during the coronavirus pandemic. In the latest Household Pulse Survey from the U.S. Census, 18% of families with children said they did not have enough to eat in the last seven days, compared to 11% of those without kids.

The executive order from Biden provides even more focused aid to families on food benefits and especially those with children.

“It’s targeted to the families that need it the most,” said Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, director and fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. “This will help address the crisis of hunger that we’ve seen during Covid.”

While a 15% boost in benefits isn’t break-the-bank money, it could amount to an extra weekly grocery run for some families, according to Whitmore Schanzenbach. In addition, topping up P-EBT benefits means many families with children will get back payments from the beginning of the school year, she said, once money from the program starts flowing in most states.  

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What is next on food benefits

Beyond the executive order, Biden’s administration has included further changes to food benefits programs in his American Rescue Plan. One of the main things in the plan, which cannot be accomplished by an executive order, is building in automatic stabilizers for enhanced emergency food benefits, said Bauer.

Right now, Congress decides when to turn on emergency benefits in a recession and set a timeline for how long they will last. Instead, Biden’s proposal looks at establishing triggers, such as a certain drop in the unemployment rate or another economic indicator, to turn the program both on and off.

“Rather than being in the world where Congress every three months has to decide, we take it out of their hands and let the economy decide whether [expanded benefits] are necessary,” said Bauer.

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