Urban Wire With Food Insecurity on the Rise, Proposed Farm Bill Spending Cuts to SNAP Are Dangerous
Poonam Gupta, Elaine Waxman
Display Date

photo of baby being fed by spoon

The House Agriculture Committee will likely soon consider a new Farm Bill, which is expected to include a proposal to cut about $30 billion in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits over 10 years. Any cut to the nation’s most effective and largest defense against hunger would be devastating for families with low incomes, who are already struggling to put food on the table amid rising food insecurity and with fewer pandemic-era safety supports.

The new Farm Bill is expected to make the cuts by curtailing the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) ability to update cost of the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP)—which the USDA uses to determine SNAP benefits—outside of adjusting for inflation. But this policy of cost neutrality is misguided and could worsen hunger for millions of Americans.

Food insecurity is on the rise

Data show food insecurity, which affects 17 million families and can have lasting negative effects on health and child development, is on the rise. Ongoing experiences of food insecurity can have detrimental short- and long-term impacts on health, and children in particular are at risk for worse developmental outcomes.

We found that food insecurity increased for the second straight year in 2023 and is now significantly higher than before the pandemic.

Food insecurity declined between 2019 and 2021, in the wake of the robust government and private response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But this hasn’t been the case in the past two years.

In 2022, we saw a substantial spike in food insecurity in response to unprecedented food price inflation that coincided with the end of several temporarily expanded social safety net programs, including the expanded child tax credits and universal free school meals.

Last year, food insecurity increased again. Even though food price inflation slowed, household budgets remained tight. Moreover, the loss of the SNAP emergency allotments last March meant families in 35 states suddenly had fewer resources to buy food.


The proposed Farm Bill would cut SNAP funding dramatically

The cost neutrality policy proposed in the new Farm Bill would limit the USDA’s ability to update SNAP benefits and ensure they adequately meet nutrition needs for families with low incomes.

Cost neutrality isn’t new; it had been the basis for all SNAP benefit updates for nearly five decades (since 1975), until the USDA released a mandated update in 2021. This was initiated by a provision in the bipartisan 2018 Farm Bill, which required the USDA to review the adequacy of the TFP every five years.

The TFP 2021 update resulted in a 21 percent increase in the maximum monthly SNAP benefit, which brought the benefit closer to, though not fully, meeting modern nutritional standards, actual purchasing patterns, and modern preparation behaviors.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that cost neutrality would immediately decrease the average monthly SNAP benefit by approximately $7. In the long term, it would lead to a steady erosion in benefit adequacy and increasingly limited purchasing power for households trying to feed their families.

Why cost neutrality is misguided

Cost neutrality is a dangerous prospect for the 42 million families across the country who rely on the benefit to purchase food. Here are a few reasons why.

  1. Food insecurity is rising, and robust evidence shows SNAP effectively reduces household food insecurity and can prevent its harmful short- and long-term effects.
  2. Existing SNAP benefits already are inadequate. Despite the overdue increase made in 2021, substantial evidence shows SNAP benefits still do not meet people’s needs across the country, particularly in areas with high food prices, because the benefit doesn’t account for geographic variation. Any policy limiting updates to an annual inflation adjustment would widen this gap.
  3. Cost neutrality erodes purchasing power and ignores modern dietary guidelines. Under cost neutrality, SNAP benefits would be based on outdated assumptions of dietary guidelines, the costs of acquiring and preparing food, and changing patterns of consumption—making the rationale behind the policy inherently flawed.

    For example, before the 2021 TFP update, the old TFP assumed an average family consisting of a man, woman, and two children predominantly purchased milk, potatoes, fruits, and rice, and spent roughly two hours a day preparing food from scratch, including tasks like hand-soaking dried beans. All of these assumptions were proven to be grossly out of step (PDF) with actual food preparation and consumption behaviors and are not grounded in the reality of everyday life.

    The reality is, our interactions with our food environment are constantly evolving as people and food systems grow and adapt to climate change and other external factors. In response, dietary guidelines, consumption patterns, and preparation times will continue to shift. 

    A 2006 USDA analysis underscores this risk. It found that benefits could not meet basic nutrition requirements to maintain cost neutrality. 
  4. A weaker SNAP program doesn’t just affect households but also the entire economy. SNAP acts as an economic multiplier, particularly when the economy is weaker; it generates income for those involved in the agriculture industry, including producers, transporters, and marketers and overall gross domestic product.
  5. Requiring cost neutrality can undermine the public’s trust in sound policymaking. If the USDA is required to complete a detailed analysis every five years but cannot act on their findings, the investment is not an effective use of government resources.

Adequate SNAP benefits would make a major difference for families

Cost neutrality essentially guarantees an inadequate SNAP benefit and ensures the country can make no meaningful progress toward nutrition security. Instead, policymakers should aim to work in the best interest of families and allow benefit reevaluation to be guided by science and data.


Tune in and subscribe today.

The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Social safety net
Tags Food insecurity and hunger Hunger and food assistance Families with low incomes Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Emergency food networks Welfare and safety net programs
Policy Centers Income and Benefits Policy Center
Related content