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What SNAP recipients can expect as benefits shrink in March

Millions of households across 32 states and the District of Columbia are receiving far less in SNAP benefits this month as Congress unwinds pandemic-era assistance.
Brandon Bell
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Millions of households across 32 states and the District of Columbia are receiving far less in SNAP benefits this month as Congress unwinds pandemic-era assistance.

This month, as many as 16 million American households have received a sharp reduction in the size of their benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP, as part of a federal unwinding of pandemic-era assistance.

On average, participants will receive about $82 less this month in SNAP benefits, according to the Food Research & Action Center, an advocacy group that works to end hunger. Some households will see reductions of $250 or more.

Some groups, including FRAC, are calling the marked decrease in benefits a "hunger cliff." Recipients in 32 states and the District of Columbia are affected this month.

More than 80% of SNAP beneficiaries are working families, people with disabilities or elderly people, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which operates the program. About two-thirds of SNAP households include children.

The end to the extra benefits — coupled with the rising costs of food — will be a hardship for many, said Linda Jones, the co-founder of a food distribution nonprofit based in Alabama, one of the states affected by the change this month.

"They're just already down and out. They don't have very much to begin with," she said in an interview with NPR. "And then when you take something else from them and then with the prices going up, it's just extra hard on them."

The amount of benefits you receive is going back to its pre-pandemic level

The emergency allotments allowed all SNAP-qualifying households to receive an extra $95 per month or an amount that brought their total benefit up to the maximum level for their household size, whichever was greater.

As of this month, that extra amount is gone.

"People will have, on average, $82 less in their SNAP electronic benefit transfer card to spend at the grocery store than they had in March," said Ellen Vollinger, the SNAP director for FRAC.

The steepest drops will disproportionately hit elderly people, she said. Older adults who qualify for the minimum SNAP benefit will see their amount fall from $281 per month to just $23 in March.

On average, those who qualify for SNAP will now receive about $6 per person per day.

"One thing we know about hunger is that if people are hungry, the fact that the federal government is going to do less about it does not end their hunger," Vollinger said.

Instead, the costs are shifted, she explained — to states, to local governments, to charities, and within the households themselves, as recipients work to recalculate how to spend their limited income.

"Do they buy fewer items of less variety? Do they serve smaller amounts at meals? Who in the family is going to go hungry?" she said.

Which states are affected?

The extra benefits ended this month in 32 states: Alabama, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

Also affected are the District of Columbia, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

All other states had already ended the extra benefits.

Last month, as the end of the federal pandemic-era boost in benefits approached, New Jersey became the first state to pass SNAP legislation in 2023: All beneficiaries in that state will now receive at least $95 in benefits each month, and if the federal government determines you qualify for a lower amount, a state-funded supplement will make up the difference.

Lawmakers in 27 other states have introduced legislation to strengthen SNAP so far this year, according to an analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Double-check your SNAP eligibility level

The end of the extra benefits could be a good time to double-check your eligibility level, Vollinger suggested.

SNAP eligibility is like federal income tax in that applicants can deduct eligible expenses from their total income in order to figure out how much in SNAP benefits they're eligible for.

Among the deductible expenses are certain medical costs, or the costs of child care or disabled adult care if you are working, looking for work or in school or training. You may also deduct legally owed child support payments.

Many people can also deduct some housing costs — SNAP allows for a shelter deduction of rent, mortgage payments or other housing costs that exceed half your net income after other deductions. Some states allow recipients to deduct the costs related to living in a homeless shelter.

Even if you took all this into account when originally applying for SNAP, now could be a good time to reevaluate those costs as inflation has driven up the prices of many services over the past two years.

"It is not going to make up for the entire cliff, but it can make a difference in the size of the cut that households are experiencing," Vollinger said.

Explore other programs for help

Besides SNAP, the U.S. government has more than a dozen other nutrition assistance programs.

Children up to the age of 5 and pregnant or postpartum women may qualify for WIC, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. See if you qualify here.

Low-income people who are at least 60 years old may qualify for programs targeted at seniors, including the Seniors Farmers' Market Nutrition Program, which provides coupons for fresh produce at farmers markets.

Many schools served free meals to all students during the pandemic, and that came to an end last fall in most states. Kids from SNAP households are automatically eligible for free lunch at school, and often breakfast, too; call your child's school for more information.

Nonprofit organizations also offer some help. Look for programs like Double Up Food Bucks, which doubles the value of EBT payments when purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables at 1,300-some grocers and farmers markets across 30 states.

Even as food banks have struggled with increases in the cost of food and a decline in donations, many had prepared for this change to SNAP, several told NPR.

"We will see a big increase. We're expecting to serve 15% more people," said Brooke Neubauer, founder of The Just One Project, a Nevada-based food bank, in an interview with NPR. "And we're welcoming them with open arms."

Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks and food pantries, has an online tool that can help you find a local food bank. And the USDA operates a "hunger hotline" that connects callers with "emergency food providers in their community, government assistance programs, and various social services": English speakers should dial 1-866-3-HUNGRY, and Spanish speakers can dial 1-877-8-HAMBRE.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.