One of the first things Kevin Askew did when he lost his job in March was sign up for SNAP benefits. He’d been working as a chef at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, but when the campus shut down because of the pandemic, he didn’t know what else to do. He couldn’t get through to the state unemployment office, he didn’t have much in the way of savings, and he started to wonder how he was going to buy groceries.
“I didn’t have a choice,” said Askew, 57. “I had to have something to eat, you know what I mean?”
More than 6 million people signed up for SNAP between February and May, a 17% increase in just three months.
“We’ve never seen participation in SNAP or demand for help with food assistance spike like this before,” said Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Even when you look back at the Great Recession of a few years ago, it took 17 months to add that many people.”
There are now 43 million people getting food assistance through SNAP, and while that is still below the peak of almost 48 million, which came after the Great Recession, it’s expected to climb soon if Congress doesn’t extend federal unemployment benefits.
Almost every state has seen an increase, but it’s been the biggest so far in Florida — 36%.
Feeding South Florida, like many food banks around the country, has been helping sign people up for benefits, and Paco Vélez, the president and CEO, said that in the early days of the pandemic, the number of calls they were getting from families spiked, from about 100 a week to over 4,700 a week.
“That started tapering off, but we’re anticipating that kind of response again as the supplemental unemployment benefits end at the end of this month,” he said.
Without the extra $600 dollars a week from the federal government, millions of people currently receiving unemployment could qualify for SNAP. Weekly unemployment benefits, in many states, are just a few hundred dollars.
While SNAP benefits will be “extremely important for families,” Vélez said, they often aren’t enough to buy people enough groceries for an entire month. “Inevitably the last 7 to 11 days of the month, we see an uptick in families requesting food assistance because their SNAP benefits have run out.”
In March, Congress made it easier for states to approve people for SNAP benefits, and also allowed states to give everyone the maximum benefit — which is $194 a month for a single person, and $509 for a family of three. Hunger relief organizations are now pushing Congress to increase SNAP benefits across the board by 15%.
“Right now our food banks are continuing to see, on average, a 50% increase in need over last year. It’s just not really a sustainable way for us to continue to operate over the long-term,” said Kate Leone, chief government relations officer at Feeding America. “We think the best way to get people food is to increase SNAP benefits.”
“We know that when we give money in the form of an EBT card to people who need to use it, they’re taking those dollars and putting them right back into the economy,” Leone said.
For Kevin Askew, an increase in SNAP benefits, any increase, would make a huge difference.
“Anything would help out,” he said. “You have to stretch it, you know what I mean? How much would $194 last you a month?”
COVID-19 Economy FAQs
So what’s up with “Zoom fatigue”?
It’s a real thing. The science backs it up — there’s new research from Stanford University. So why is it that the technology can be so draining? Jeremy Bailenson with Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab puts it this way: “It’s like being in an elevator where everyone in the elevator stopped and looked right at us for the entire elevator ride at close-up.” Bailenson said turning off self-view and shrinking down the video window can make interactions feel more natural and less emotionally taxing.
How are Americans spending their money these days?
Economists are predicting that pent-up demand for certain goods and services is going to burst out all over as more people get vaccinated. A lot of people had to drastically change their spending in the pandemic because they lost jobs or had their hours cut. But at the same time, most consumers “are still feeling secure or optimistic about their finances,” according to Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, which regularly surveys shoppers. A lot of people enjoy browsing in stores, especially after months of forced online shopping. And another area expecting a post-pandemic boost: travel.
What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?
Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”
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