Urban Wire Under Proposed Cuts to SNAP Funding, Families Would Have to Stretch Their Benefits Even Further
Poonam Gupta, Elaine Waxman
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A proposal put forward during recent Farm Bill negotiations could effectively cut SNAP funding by $30 billion over 10 years, making it more difficult for the more than 42 million families who receive SNAP benefits to put food on their tables.

The proposal would limit the USDA’s ability to update the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP)—a model the agency uses to determine SNAP benefits—by requiring any updates to be cost neutral, accounting only for inflation. In effect, the proposed changes would reduce SNAP benefits’ purchasing power over time, exacerbating the current SNAP benefits gap.

A bipartisan provision in the 2018 Farm Bill directed the USDA to reevaluate the TFP every five years to align it with current dietary guidelines, the costs of acquiring and preparing food, and household consumption patterns. In 2021, for the first time in nearly five decades, the USDA updated the TFP to account for real purchasing power. The adjustment resulted in a 21 percent increase in the maximum monthly SNAP benefit that narrowed—but did not close—the gap between the maximum benefit and the cost of a modestly priced meal.

Without this critical benefits increase, families would have struggled even more to afford food in 2022. Using data from NielsenIQ on geographic variations in food prices, we estimate that before the 2021 TFP adjustment, SNAP benefits did not cover the cost of a meal in 96 percent of US counties. After the adjustment, however, benefits were inadequate in only one in five counties.

Though SNAP benefits are too low for many families to afford a healthy diet, SNAP is still one of our nation’s most effective tools in the fight against food insecurity. To ensure families can access the food they need for a nutritious diet, policymakers should protect existing SNAP benefits and work to ensure benefit levels align with the true costs of acquiring and preparing food.

SNAP benefits are inadequate in most US counties

Record-breaking food price inflation in 2022 widened the gap between the cost of a meal and SNAP benefits compared with the gains made after the TFP adjustment. In the final months of 2022, after the annual cost-of-living adjustment, a modestly priced meal in the US cost $3.14, or 15 percent more than the maximum SNAP benefit ($2.74). Given that nearly 4 in 10 households receiving SNAP have zero net income, rising food costs and inadequate benefits made it difficult for many people to feed their families.

Because SNAP benefits are not geographically adjusted for the lower 48 states, how much food families can afford differs substantially based on where they live. SNAP benefits are particularly inadequate in urban areas with high food prices, although some rural areas face above-average food prices.

Without the TFP update, millions more families would have struggled to afford food in 2022

To understand how the TFP update affected SNAP benefits, we calculated what families would have received had the update not occurred—that is, if the maximum SNAP benefit per meal were 21 percent lower—and assessed the benefits’ adequacy, or whether the benefit would have covered the cost of a moderately priced meal. We looked at October through December 2022, after the annual cost-of-living adjustment occurred.

We found that without the TFP update, the cost of a modestly priced meal would have been 45 percent higher than the maximum SNAP benefit nationwide. That’s three times as high as the actual benefits gap (15 percent) families faced at the end of 2022.

We also assessed how large the gap between the maximum SNAP benefit and the cost of a meal would have been in 10 urban and rural counties with the highest food prices if the TFP update had not occurred. In all 10 counties, we found that the cost of a moderately priced meal would have been roughly two times or more higher than the maximum SNAP benefit.


In Leelanau County, Michigan, the rural county with the highest food prices, the price of a meal would have been a staggering 132 percent higher than the maximum SNAP benefit. Similarly, the urban county with the highest food prices, New York County, would have faced a gap of 121 percent.

By not requiring cost neutrality and aligning benefits with the current costs of acquiring and preparing food, the 2021 TFP update brought SNAP benefits closer to adequate.

The TFP update reduced poverty

SNAP not only reduces food insecurity but also keeps families out of poverty. The 2021 TFP update to SNAP benefits reduced poverty in the initial months after its implementation. Urban research analyzing the effect of the adjusted TFP on poverty found the increase kept nearly 2.3 million people out of poverty in the fourth quarter of 2021, reducing poverty by 4.7 percent. Child poverty was also reduced by 8.6 percent; the largest decrease was among Black children, with poverty falling by 12.2 percent.

To boost families out of poverty and increase access to a healthy, nutritious diet, policymakers should continue to work toward closing the SNAP benefits gap and allow benefits to be reevaluated so they align with current food costs and nutrition guidance.


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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
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