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North Texans face great hunger risk after SNAP cuts during ‘food price emergency’

Grace Prentice holds her dog, Jackson, outside of her extended stay hotel room Tuesday, March 21, 2023, in Lewisville.
Yfat Yossifor
Grace Prentice holds her dog, Jackson, outside of her extended stay hotel room Tuesday, March 21, 2023, in Lewisville.

Grace Prentice’s SNAP benefits used to afford her a little extra breathing room. It wasn’t exactly easy to make ends meet for herself and her little dog, Jackson. But she was able to offset the cost of some of her medications. She had to make less frequent trips to the food pantry. She could splurge, just a little, the grocery store from time to time.

“It was like fresh fruits and vegetables. I’m able to get a piece of meat like chicken or hamburgers that I don’t usually get,” Prentice said.

Now, Prentice said she doesn’t get fresh produce unless a food pantry is giving it away.

In March, Prentice’s SNAP benefits were cut by a third. All 1.6 million Texas households participating in the program – representing about 3.5 million individual Texans — saw their SNAP benefits cut an average of $212.

“If I do it right, I can go for maybe a week — maybe,” Prentice said. “And then it’s hit or miss. I’ve gone hungry, and it’s not an easy thing.”

When the pandemic hit, Congress boosted federal food assistance by giving every SNAP household the maximum benefits. In December, Congress voted to close the book on that chapter, and told Texas and the remaining states still delivering maximum SNAP benefits that they were to return to pre-pandemic program rules starting March 1.

The end of expanded food assistance during the pandemic — one of several wildly successful efforts to reduce poverty as the coronavirus upended the economy that have since been eliminated — came at a steep cost for many North Texans who struggled with unusually high inflation.

“The problem is, in addition to a public health emergency, we’ve ended up with a food price emergency,” said Elaine Waxman, who researches food insecurity at the Urban Institute. “And that hasn’t been accounted for in Congress’ decision to end the emergency allotments.”

In 2021, the Biden Administration increased the value of the Thrifty Food Plan, the federal government’s estimation of the cheapest-possible way to eat healthy diet, determining that a family of four could meet basic nutritional needs for $835 per month.

SNAP allotments are calculated based on that plan, which has helped SNAP recipients, Waxman said. But in some places, even maximum SNAP benefits aren’t sufficient to meet basic nutritional needs.

Waxman, who is also a fellow at the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty, said food insecurity was increasing even before the benefits were reduced, a sign of diminished spending power as food inflation soared. The cost of a Thrifty Food Plan in April was up to $971 per month for that family of four, though SNAP benefits won’t be adjusted for inflation until the fall.

“Although food price increases have abated a bit in the last couple of months, they're still well above what people had expected,” Waxman said. “And in general, wage increases have not kept pace with food prices.”

Who SNAP serves

The cut didn’t come as a surprise for Prentice, who is 63 years old and lives in an extended stay motel in Lewisville. The feds sent her a letter in January notifying her that her benefits would be slashed.

But Prentice has a fixed income; she can’t work due to fibromyalgia. So that advanced warning didn’t change the fact that, at the end of the day, after she pays for medicine and rent and other bills, she has about $46 dollars leftover for the month.

“What do I do now? I can’t go out and get a part time job because of my disability,” Prentice said. “What am I going to do?”

About 80% of Texas SNAP recipients are in families with children. More than a quarter of SNAP households include adults who are older or disabled. More than half of Texas SNAP goes to families where at least one person is working, according to data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Ty Jones Cox, vice president for food assistance at the left-leaning think tank, said abundant research has shown SNAP to be an efficient and effective tool to reduce poverty and hunger, improve health outcomes and even put money into local economies.

“It’s just real impact because it’s food. Literally, we’re providing people with the option to purchase food,” Cox said.

Research shows it improves short and long-term health outcomes. Kids do better in school after their families get SNAP, which improves lifetime economic opportunities. SNAP is linked with reduced hospitalizations and healthcare costs for older people. Because it provides a reliable boost to household finances, it increases a family’s economic stability.

The funds also bolster local economies. SNAP benefits are spent like cash in local grocery stores, and every $1 of SNAP benefits generates a $1.54 in economic activity, according to federal data.

The boost to benefits during the pandemic was part of a massively expanded safety net that helped cut poverty to historic lows. But now, most of that pandemic safety net has been unraveled, and Cox said the results were predictable: More poverty, more hunger, more insecurity.

“To me, now it’s so much harder to go backwards because it feels like we really know what to do. It’s whether we’re going to do it,” Cox said.

Nowhere to go

Even with the robust research supporting the program’s benefits, Cox said there’s evidence to show that increased benefit levels would produce positive results. Beneficiaries receiving greater SNAP benefits buy more varied and healthier foods, she said. And with inflation at record highs, it’s clear that many families are struggling even with SNAP’s help.

“Is it really enough for families to eat? We might have been at that place [when benefits were maxed out],” Cox said. “And then we had to move back to an [allotment] amount that, while powerful, doesn’t go as far as it could.”

Cox said seniors lost the greatest share of their SNAP benefits in March, because many are in single-person households with income from social security.

Grace Prentice used to manage a food pantry in Nevada before she fled to Texas to escape an abusive husband. Now, she and many of her neighbors are turning more and more toward food pantries to make ends meet, she said.

Tai Lewis, right, carries bags of groceries to a vehicle during a North Texas Food Bank and Tarrant Area Food Bank drive-thru food distribution event Thursday, March 9, 2023, at Westside Baptist Church in Lewisville.
Yfat Yossifor
Tai Lewis, right, carries bags of groceries to a vehicle during a North Texas Food Bank and Tarrant Area Food Bank drive-thru food distribution event Thursday, March 9, 2023, at Westside Baptist Church in Lewisville.

They’re part of an overwhelming wave of need crashing into a food bank network that simply can’t make up the gap for the massive cut in SNAP benefits, said Celia Cole with Feeding Texas. She said the cuts eliminated about $340 million per month in grocery-buying power overnight. And the state’s charitable food banks were already straining to deal with increasing need with diminished resources.

“We are not able to make up for that. It would be silly for us to even think we could make up for that,” Cole said.

Prentice said she can see the strain when she goes to local food pantries, because the shelves are barer and they run out of basics more often.

The state’s food banks joined other anti-hunger and anti-poverty groups to push for changes to SNAP during the just-ended session of the Texas Legislature.

The program is administered by states, which have latitude to set additional rules for SNAP eligibility. Texas adds restrictions that make it harder for some people to sign up. The state ranks 37th in the USDA’s rankings of SNAP accessibility. Only about 3 in 4 Texans who qualify for SNAP benefits are enrolled in the program.

Lawmakers approved bipartisan legislation, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Royce West of Dallas and Republican Rep. Jeff Leach of Plano, that will pre-register people leaving jails and prisons for SNAP benefits, so they’re able to use the benefits when they return home instead of having to wait over a month to get the help. The bill requires the governor’s signature to become law.

But lawmakers rejected legislation to allow students in community college vocational programs to get the benefits, which would have helped the estimated 38% of two-year college students facing food insecurity.

Texas limits access based on an applicant’s assets like cash and property when most states don’t. For example, people who own cars can be dinged if that car is worth more than $15,000, a value that was set in 2001. As car values jumped during the pandemic, that one rule resulted in over 100,000 people being denied food stamps in 2021 and 2022.

That vehicle asset test got an update in the legislature, so in the future it’ll be pegged to inflation so people don’t lose benefits as car and truck prices increase.

The Urban Institute’s Waxman also said that, under federal rules, Texas is allowed expand eligibility for SNAP to people making up to 200% of the poverty line, but instead the state caps eligibility at 165%. Changing that wasn’t even on the table in the statehouse.

Federal changes

In October, the Agriculture Department will adjust benefits for inflation. That’ll certainly help SNAP recipients, Waxman said, though the adjustment is based on data from the previous June. That three-month lag in this inflationary environment means that by the time the benefits are upped, the spending power of each dollar will be just a bit less powerful.

Grace Prentice holds her dog, Jackson, outside of her extended stay hotel room Tuesday, March 21, 2023, in Lewisville.
Yfat Yossifor
Grace Prentice holds her dog, Jackson, outside of her extended stay hotel room Tuesday, March 21, 2023, in Lewisville.

The future of SNAP is also a bit unclear.

Anti-hunger groups are calling for Congress to increase SNAP benefits and ease access in this year’s federal Farm Bill.

But House Republicans have extracted a commitment from the Biden Administration to tighten existing SNAP work requirements that target some Gen Xers with no dependents. It was one of the top policy changes the GOP hoped to force under threat of a national debt default, though the compromise’s SNAP changes are less severe than Republicans had hoped for.

While GOP lawmakers argue work requirements spur people to go get jobs, plenty of research shows that isn’t true. A University of Illinois study found states that use SNAP the most have some of the lowest unemployment rates. Work requirements also don’t improve the economic opportunities for SNAP recipients.

“Counter to what we might expect, work requirements don't really have much of an impact on work effort,” Waxman said. “Most people who can work do, so they don't really produce additional work effort and they typically then result in more people losing SNAP and being worse off.”

Because states pay half the cost of administering SNAP, the GOP proposal could actually increase state costs related to the program by increasing the administrative burden, she said.

Work requirements do, however, kick people off of SNAP. Cox said the debate over work requirements is based more on stereotypes and notions of “deservingness” rather than the reality that work requirements will simply take food away from poor people with no benefit to the labor force or economy.

“SNAP provides $6 per person per day [on average],” Cox said. “No one's getting rich on it and no one's able to just sit back on the sidelines eating good, doing nothing else, just getting SNAP. That just is not happening.”

Waxman pointed to “persistent food insecurity” in the United States. In Texas, nearly 1 in 4 children experience hunger or food insecurity. That’s true for about 4 million Texans, according to Feeding Texas.

“We have to ask ourselves, why is that acceptable given all of the negative consequences for individual health and community health? ...For a long time we've talked about food insecurity like it's a social welfare problem. It's a public health problem of a very significant magnitude.”

Copyright 2023 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Christopher Connelly is a KERA reporter based in Fort Worth. Christopher joined KERA after a year and a half covering the Maryland legislature for WYPR, the NPR member station in Baltimore. Before that, he was a Joan B. Kroc Fellow at NPR – one of three post-graduates who spend a year working as a reporter, show producer and digital producer at network HQ in Washington, D.C.