The Biden administration on Monday announced the largest-ever increase to the federal government's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, approving an additional $20 billion for the already expansive initiative.
The increase, which is meant to be permanent, hikes food stamp stipends by more than 20% from their pre-pandemic levels and affects every single one of the program's 42 million beneficiaries, the New York Times first reported.
"The move does not require congressional approval, and unlike the large pandemic-era expansions, which are starting to expire, the changes are intended to last," the Times added in its report.
The SNAP program, designed to provide food assistance to low-income families and individuals, has been steadily growing since its inception in 1974. It now feeds about 1 in 8 Americans.
In a news release, the U.S. Department of Agriculture explained that as a part of the revamped Thrifty Food Plan, beneficiaries will receive an additional $36 a month. Before the coronavirus pandemic, the monthly stipend was $121.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack described the increase as an investment in the future.
"A modernized Thrifty Food Plan is more than a commitment to good nutrition — it's an investment in our nation's health, economy, and security," Vilsack said. "Ensuring low-income families have access to a healthy diet helps prevent disease, supports children in the classroom, reduces health care costs, and more."
In conversation with the Times a week earlier, Vilsack added that the food stamp safety net helps "stabilize our democracy."
"We may have a Constitution and a Declaration of Independence, but if we had 42 million Americans who were going hungry, really hungry, they wouldn't be happy and there would be political instability," he explained.
The USDA changes come as a result of the 2018 Farm Bill and President Biden's COVID-19 relief executive order issued Jan. 22. In the order, Biden called for the program to be expanded and the nutrition plan to be revised in order to accurately account for "the true cost of a basic healthy diet."
"To set SNAP families up for success, we need a Thrifty Food Plan that supports current dietary guidance on a budget," Stacy Dean, deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services, noted in the news release. "Too many of our fellow Americans struggle to afford healthy meals. The revised plan is one step toward getting them the support they need to feed their families."
According to the Times, critics of the plan argue that an increase isn't needed since the program is designed to cover only part of the beneficiary's monthly grocery bill, not all of it.
They also argue that the monthly stipend would go a lot further if beneficiaries spent it on nutritious foods rather than unhealthy snacks. USDA data shows that 10% of SNAP program stipend money is spent on sugary drinks.