The safety net that stretches beneath Americans living in poverty will see more mending and less rending as presidents change.
That’s the belief voiced by hunger fighters and other anti-poverty advocates who say they’re tired of endlessly “playing defense,” battling Trump administration efforts to slash vital programs such as food stamps, now known as SNAP, for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
“It’s more exciting when you’re pushing for what’s possible and not fighting off really horrible things,” said Kathy Fisher, policy director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger.
Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, headquartered in New York City, said, “It’s a time to heave a deep sigh of relief and hope that we can finally come to our senses and no longer go after the least of these,” a biblical reference to the poor.
He added that both President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris “have long histories of fighting for economic and food justice, and both have spoken out passionately on the urgent need to end domestic hunger.”
Differences on SNAP
Biden and President Donald Trump differ significantly on issues related to poverty.
Perhaps no subject more clearly delineates that divide than SNAP, a benefit used by 43 million Americans in April 2020 — 6 million more than in April 2019, before the pandemic hit, federal figures show. SNAP has been keeping millions alive during the economic downturn in the time of COVID-19, advocates say.
While Biden has long been a SNAP supporter, Trump has defied even Republicans in Congress by working to aggressively take apart the program, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Bill every five years. After the latest version of the legislation was passed by bipartisan vote in 2018, Trump promised to severely alter it, even denigrating the bill during the signing ceremony.
“He went on to put forward his aggressive vision to change SNAP,” said Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C.
One proposal would impose work requirements on many SNAP recipients, a special difficulty when Americans are losing their jobs to the pandemic, Dean said.
Another Trump plan would have offered food boxes to low-income Americans instead of SNAP benefits, an idea that even Republicans decried as unworkable and more expensive than SNAP.
Overall, Trump has proposed regulations that would terminate assistance or cut benefits to 4 million Americans, Dean said. Two rules aren’t final, and one was struck down last month by a federal judge who called the Trump plan “arbitrary and capricious,” especially during a pandemic that has unemployed millions.
Trump’s anti-SNAP attitude inspired Biden’s rhetoric during the just completed presidential campaign: “Hunger today isn’t about scarcity — it’s about a massive failure in leadership.”
Biden appears to believe that the benefit is good medicine administered at too low a dose.
“He’s echoed the call of anti-hunger advocates to boost SNAP,” said Luis Guardia, president of the Food Research & Action Center in Washington, D.C., the largest anti-hunger lobbying group in the nation. “That’s the policy move with the biggest bang for the buck. And Kamala Harris also urged strengthening SNAP in the Senate."
On average, SNAP households received about $246 a month in fiscal year 2020, FRAC research shows. The average SNAP benefit per person was about $125 per month, which works out to about $1.39 per person per meal.
In 1996, then-Sen. Biden opposed GOP plans to make the food stamp program a block grant administered by states, which advocates said would have greatly diminished its reach.
In 2012, when he was vice president, Biden defended those who received food stamps and other government aid by saying, “These men and women aren’t looking for a handout. They’re just looking for a chance to acquire the tools and the skills to provide for their families so they can hold their heads high and lead independent lives with dignity.”
Last December, when Trump was touting a proposal that would cut SNAP benefits to 700,000 Americans to save the federal government money, Biden renounced him, saying that the president “somehow found $1.4 billion for his sham of a border wall. This administration is morally bankrupt.”
During the COVID-19 crisis, Biden has joined advocates in asking that SNAP benefits increase by 15%. The president-elect is also on record to temporarily provide low-income families with about $100 per month in extra nutritional support.
While addressing issues central to low-income Americans, Biden is careful not to “throw around the word ‘poverty’ too much,” said sociologist Judith Levine, director of the Public Policy Lab at Temple University. “But he will say things that have the promise of really helping poverty.”
Biden wants to boost both Social Security and Supplemental Security Income, the latter of which helps aged, blind, and disabled people who have little or no income. The Urban Institute has predicted the plan, which would be paid for by taxing the wealthy, could raise 1.4 million people out of poverty.
Frequently, Biden has mentioned raising the U.S. minimum wage from $7.25 to $15, which could make all the difference in the lives of those in poverty, as well as the working class, Levine said.
Biden wants to increase funding for Section 8 housing, which subsidizes private landlords to rent apartments and homes at fair market rates to qualified low-income tenants. Some estimate that could cut child poverty by one-third, Levine said.
The president-elect has also proposed raising the child tax credit for low-income families from $2,000 to $3,000, a change that Columbia University researchers said could move 4 million children out of poverty.
Biden is also looking to give Americans 12 weeks of paid maternity leave, and would give bonuses to employers who offer on-site child-care facilities. Further, he has a plan to pay bonuses to child-care workers willing to be on the job during non-standard hours.
Of course, much of Biden’s anti-poverty agenda would need support in Congress — something that’s not guaranteed, especially if he faces a majority-Republican Senate, experts say.
Still, Biden’s ideas are inspiring to anti-poverty advocates everywhere.
“People don’t have enough to eat,” said Deborah Weinstein, executive director of the Coalition on Human Needs in Washington, D.C.
“During a pandemic, at this time, it is so important that we have people coming into office who are committed to end hunger.”