Are Food Stamp Benefits Too Little?


Key Points

  • Research Indicating SNAP Benefits Are Too Low: Urban Institute tool suggests that the average cost of a meal exceeds the maximum SNAP benefit, emphasizing the potential inadequacy of the program.
  • Concerns About Research Methodology: Emphasizes that SNAP is meant to supplement, not replace, food purchases, and spending habits should be expected to exceed the lowest-cost food budget when households have income.
  • Drawbacks of Raising SNAP Maximum Benefits: Highlights the fiscal irresponsibility of increasing SNAP benefits amidst a large federal deficit and national debt, which could contribute to inflation and rising price levels.

Recent studies are raising concerns about whether the help provided by the Food Stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), is sufficient. This program, which served 41.2 million people in the Fiscal Year 2022, is the biggest food assistance initiative in the United States.

But before you call your congressperson, let’s take a closer look at the research that suggests SNAP benefits might be too low.

The Research Findings

The Urban Institute has developed a tool indicating the average cost of a “modestly-priced” meal often exceeds the maximum SNAP benefit allotted for a meal. For instance, in the last quarter of 2022, the average “modestly-priced” meal cost was $3.14, surpassing the calculated maximum SNAP benefit of $2.74 for a meal in the 48 contiguous states.

To make matters more complicated, food prices vary across the country. The tool allows users to see how the maximum food benefit falls short in different counties. According to the Urban Institute, the maximum SNAP benefit covered the cost of a modestly- priced meal in only 27 out of 3,143 counties, or just 1 percent of the total.

Other organizations, such as the Brookings Institute, share similar concerns about the adequacy of SNAP benefits, putting pressure on Congress to consider increasing the program’s maximum benefit.

Are We Comparing Apples and Oranges?

It’s essential to be cautious, though, as the research might be comparing different things. The maximum SNAP benefit is based on the Thrifty Food Plan, intended to be the lowest-cost food budget while still providing necessary nutrition for a family. In fact, it is the lowest cost budget produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which begs the question of how the Urban Institute is defining a modestly priced meal.

The Urban Institute’s calculation of a “modestly priced meal” is based on the spending habits of households at or below 130 percent of the official poverty level, but who were also considered to be “food secure.”

It should be expected The Thrifty Food Plan is lower than the actual expenditures of this demographic group because, as the name suggests (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), SNAP is meant to supplement, not replace, food purchases. As households earn income, it’s expected they will spend more on food than what the minimum budget allows.

Why Is There Still Food Insecurity?

Food insecurity is determined by using answers to the Current Population Survey, but the determination doesn’t specifically address the adequacy of the SNAP maximum benefit. Other factors, like spending habits, diets, and dealing with the stress of poverty, also play a role. It’s important to note that the U.S. faces an obesity problem, even among SNAP participants, suggesting that the issue may not be too few calories but rather poor eating habits.

However, the obesity problem probably has more to do with more nutrition education, better eating habits, and improved financial literacy for participants rather than the program itself.

The Solution: Congress should reform the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) so that more households can easily overcome benefits cliffs through steady work and typical pay raises and achieve self-sufficiency faster.  

SNAP, TANF, welfare, benefits, benefits cliffs

The Solution: Congress should reform the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) so that more households can easily overcome benefits cliffs through steady work and typical pay raises and achieve self-sufficiency faster.  

Negatives of Increasing Benefits

While some might think increasing SNAP benefits is harmless, there are negative consequences to consider. It can affect upward economic mobility for participants ready to leave the program, making it more costly with unwanted economic side effects.

A recent study highlighted a benefit cliff problem in SNAP, where households lose more total income than gained from increased earnings. The study identifies the importance of controlling the maximum benefit to solve benefit cliffs and marriage penalties.

Benefit cliffs are a big problem for households trying to stop relying on safety-net assistance programs. They face an unfair choice between being worse off financially and giving up their long-term goals of moving up economically through steady work. After vulnerable people get help from the safety net, government assistance should help them move forward, not hold them back.

Considering the cost of the program is also important. In the fiscal year 2022, the federal government spent $120 billion on the Food Stamp program. However, the government had a $1.4 trillion deficit, increasing the national debt to over $32 trillion. This financial irresponsibility is a major reason for inflation and higher prices, which impact those on safety-net programs the most.

The Best Strategy Forward

Increasing the maximum SNAP benefit should be approached cautiously to balance adequate nutrition for families while controlling program costs. The Urban Institute’s definition of a reasonably priced meal falls short because they are measuring the wrong aspects when compared to the criteria set for the maximum allotment. There seems to be a methodology problem in their approach.  It’s extremely important to get the number right to ensure adequate nutrition for families but in a way that is thrifty to keep program costs under control and to make it easier to fix benefit cliffs and mitigate marriage penalties.

Those concerned about low SNAP benefits should also consider that other assistance programs help participants, such as free school meals and food banks operated by non-profit organizations. Plus, state agencies that administer SNAP all have nutrition education programs to help participants know how to budget for nutritious food. The federal government also assists states in those efforts by providing tools, curricula, and a website. Ultimately, determining the adequacy of Food Stamp benefits should rely on nutrition science, consumer science, financial education, and thriftiness.


*Erik Randolph is the Director of Research for the Georgia Center for Opportunity.

*Monthly average for the fiscal year per program data tables of the Food and Nutrition Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Share This