WASHINGTON — With more than one in 10 households reporting that they lack enough to eat, the Biden administration is accelerating a vast campaign of hunger relief that will temporarily increase assistance by tens of billions of dollars and set the stage for what officials envision as lasting expansions of aid.
The effort to rush more food assistance to more people is notable both for the scale of its ambition and the variety of its legislative and administrative actions. The campaign has increased food stamps by more than $1 billion a month, provided needy children a dollar a day for snacks, expanded a produce allowance for pregnant women and children, and authorized the largest children’s summer feeding program in history.
“We haven’t seen an expansion of food assistance of this magnitude since the founding of the modern food stamp program in 1977,” said James P. Ziliak, an economist at the University of Kentucky who studies nutrition programs. “It’s a profound change.”
While dollars and decisions are flowing from the Agriculture Department, the tone has been set by President Biden, who issued an executive order in January telling aides to “address the growing hunger crisis” and later lamented the car lines “half a mile each, just to get a box of food.”
The push reflects an extraordinary shift in the politics of poverty — driven, paradoxically, both by the spread of hardship to more working-class and white families and the growing recognition of poverty’s disproportionate toll on minorities. With hunger especially pronounced among Black and Latino households, vital to the Democrats’ coalition, the administration is framing its efforts not just as a response to pandemic needs but as part of a campaign for racial justice.
“This crisis has revealed how fragile many Americans’ economic lives are and also the inequities of who is struggling the most,” said Stacy Dean, who is leading the effort as a senior official at the Agriculture Department after a prominent career as an anti-hunger advocate. “It’s an incredibly painful picture, and it is even more so for communities of color.”
Like other policies being pursued by the White House — including a temporary child allowance that is expected to cut child poverty nearly in half — the effort to reduce hunger reflects a new willingness among Democrats to embrace an identity as poverty fighters that they once feared would alienate the middle class.
To understand what the new policies mean at the kitchen table, consider the experience of Dakota Kirby, 29, a single mother in Indianapolis who lost her job as a caregiver for an elderly woman at the start of the pandemic. Having recently started the job, Ms. Kirby assumed she could not get unemployment benefits and did not apply.
That left her relying on nutritional aid and a trickle of child support to feed a 6-year-old daughter and a year-old son.
“It got a little rough there,” said Ms. Kirby, adding that she hesitates to complain since “there’s families that have it way worse.”
Even when she budgeted carefully, her $509 a month in food stamps ran out within three weeks. She trimmed her portions and skipped meals, so the children could eat. She got help from a food bank until her children rebelled at butter beans and tuna. She pawned her television set, but still came up short at the checkout line.
“It was humiliating,” she said, to jettison frozen pizzas in line as strangers looked on. “I’ve never had that kind of problem. It makes you really sad and angry as a mom. Especially when it’s through no fault of your own.”
Ms. Kirby recently received a 15 percent increase in food stamps, mandated by Congress in December, which was so unexpected she refused to spend it, for fear she would get in trouble.
In addition, both children will now qualify for a program called Pandemic-EBT, which offers electronic vouchers for groceries to replace meals lost during school closings. (Previously only her older child qualified.) And she will receive more money for produce under the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC.
Combined, monthly aid from the three programs will rise to $930 from $665. Put differently, each person in the home will now receive $10 a day to eat, an increase of 40 percent.
“That’s a big old jump!” she said, surprised at the news. “It will help tremendously.”
The Biden effort marks a sharp change from the philosophy of the Trump administration, which sought to narrow eligibility for food stamps and expand work rules.
So far, the expansion of aid has brought only modest conservative complaint. But what supporters called “nutritional assistance,” critics often call “welfare.” Past expansions of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, as the food stamp program is formally known, brought counterattacks from conservatives who argued that the program undercut work and marriage.
Angela Rachidi of the conservative American Enterprise Institute said the Biden administration had overstated the need for additional assistance and understated the risks. She noted that the government had spent vast sums to expand other programs and that Congress had substantially raised SNAP benefits for many families at the start of the pandemic. (In addition to increased SNAP, Ms. Kirby received $8,200 in stimulus payments and will get a $6,600 child allowance.)
Ms. Rachidi credited strict welfare rules for prepandemic reductions in poverty — child poverty fell to a record low — and warned that a lasting aid expansion would put that progress at risk.
“This has been on the agenda of Democrats and left-leaning advocacy groups for a long time — they’re expanding programs that discourage work and encourage dependency,” she said. “There’s a clear intention to make these changes permanent, and I think many Republicans have been asleep at the wheel.”
Scenes of crowded food banks have provided some of the most arresting images of the pandemic and brought hunger issues a rare spotlight. A recent Census Bureau survey found that, over the previous week alone, 8.4 percent of adults said their households “sometimes” lacked enough to eat and 2.3 percent said they “often” did. That translates into 23 million hungry adults, plus millions of children.
At the John Boner Neighborhood Center in Indianapolis, requests for emergency food have become so common that the agency has started to stock food boxes.
“We have people who’ve never needed assistance before, and we have that population that needed it before but need it more now,” said Carla James, a staff member.
Interviews with neighborhood residents suggest the aid expansions have done much to reduce hardship, but with their reach varying greatly from household to household.
While Ms. Kirby got no unemployment aid, Sonya Radford quickly received jobless benefits, which more than replaced the income she lost when her job as a nursing assistant ended, and she enrolled in SNAP. That combination left her better able to feed her three children than before the pandemic, when she often relied on food pantries.
“With the benefits, we’re pretty well off,” she said.
Anna Chaney quit her job as a Door Dash driver to watch her daughter and two grandchildren when their schools closed. She has since seen both hardship and plenty. For seven months, surviving on SNAP was such a struggle that she cut portions and diluted the chicken soup. Then she suddenly got $16,000 in overdue unemployment benefits. She filled the freezer with meat and took the family on vacation.
“I wish that the lawmakers would have realized prior to us being in a pandemic that poor people needed more,” she said. “It took more of the middle class, and some of the upper class, to find that they needed help for people to act. For me to go in and tell the Indiana legislature, ‘Hey, guys, $75 isn’t enough to eat for a week,’ that’s going to be a real hard sell. But when the whole world is suffering, that’s a different situation.”
The Biden administration shares the hope — that demonstrating the value of the aid expansions, most of them temporary, will lead to permanent change. “We can build a stronger, longer-lasting safety net,” Ms. Dean said.
Speaking at an anti-hunger conference last month, the agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, outlined a kaleidoscope of recent initiatives. They include new subsidies to food banks, an outreach campaign in WIC, food aid for homeless young adults, grants for Puerto Rico and the Mariana Islands, and efforts to deliver more nutritious food.
Perhaps the most important change since the start of the pandemic involves the temporary growth of SNAP benefits, which reach about one in eight Americans and one in four children.
The Biden administration settled legal challenges last week that will further raise benefits beyond those Democrats twice pushed through Congress last year. A federal judge ruled last fall that the Trump administration had erred in denying the poorest 40 percent of households the initial increase; in agreeing to raise those benefits, the Biden administration officials will expand assistance by more than a $1 billion a month.
With the new increase, average benefits will have grown temporarily by roughly three-quarters during the crisis.
Pandemic-EBT, the replacement for school meals, is a large temporary program that could lead to lasting change. Child hunger routinely rises when schools let out, and nutrition advocates have long called for a large summer feeding program. By extending Pandemic-EBT through the summer, Congress is essentially running a pilot program, at a cost of roughly $6 billion, and Biden officials have signaled an interest in making it permanent.
Less immediate but potentially of great importance is a process the Biden team has started to re-examine adequacy of SNAP benefits in normal times. The benefits are based on a budget called the Thrifty Food Plan, which experts have long argued underestimates the costs of feeding a family. Elaine Waxman of the Urban Institute and two colleagues found benefits would have to grow 27 percent (or $15 billion a year in pre-crisis terms) to meet minimal needs.
In 2018, Congress, then under Republican control, authorized the Agriculture Department to re-evaluate the cost of a healthy diet, and Mr. Biden’s order urged officials to accelerate the work. While awaiting an internal study, officials have indicated they expect to raise benefits significantly.
“The Thrifty Food Plan is just too thrifty,” Ms. Dean recently said.
Speaking at the recent conference, Mr. Vilsack cast these efforts as part of a fight for racial justice. A former agriculture secretary under President Barack Obama, he called himself an “older white guy” and added, “I haven’t had the experience of being Black.” But he said an equity commission in the department would re-evaluate policies to ensure racial fairness.
Reassured by a reporter that her benefit increase had not been a mistake, Ms. Kirby, the Indianapolis mother, recently returned to the grocery store where her shortage of funds had led to humiliation in the checkout line.
This time, she brought her children, no longer afraid they would ask for food she could not afford. She bought the frozen pizzas she had been forced to discard in the earlier visit and “some expensive stuff, like meat sauce for spaghetti.”
“I don’t even know how to explain it,” referring to her eased worries. “It’s like a physical relief. I just knew everything would be OK.”