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The 42 Million Americans Who Receive SNAP Benefits Are Set To Get $36 More A Month

SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:

The Biden administration has ordered the largest increase in food stamp benefits in the program's history. Come October, the 42 million people who currently receive money through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP, will receive an extra $36 a month. Right now they currently receive $121 a month per person - the cost to taxpayers, an additional $20 billion a year.

The Agriculture Department oversees the food stamp program. And its secretary, Tom Vilsack, joins us now. Mr. Secretary, thanks so much for being here.

TOM VILSACK: Happy to be with you.

DAVIS: Can you start by talking about who gets SNAP benefits? Paint us picture of the typical person or household.

VILSACK: Eighty-one percent of SNAP beneficiaries are either individuals who are part of a working family, a person with a severe disability or a senior citizen living on a fixed income. Roughly 19% are what we refer to as able-bodied adults without children. So it's a mix of people who are struggling financially or trying to live on a small income or are currently unemployed.

DAVIS: What factors drove the decision to raise the benefits now?

VILSACK: Well, Congress directed us in the 2018 Farm Bill to do a reevaluation of the Thrifty Food Plan, which is the foundation calculation, if you will, that helps to determine the benefit. It takes into consideration a variety of activities and data, dietary guidelines that have changed. The food consumption patterns of working families and families who are struggling have changed. The grocery stores have changed.

And it's been about 15 years since we last did the evaluation. We did a series of surveys and interviews with a variety of SNAP families. And we learned that at the end of the month, they were really having a difficult time making ends meet and being able to make healthy choices. So the question is, you know, what does it take, what could it take or what should it take to give the families the ability to do that through the entire month?

DAVIS: One of the criticisms of the Thrifty Food Program (ph) is it wasn't a realistic assessment of how people actually live and eat. One of the examples is about beans, that it would presume that people would soak dried beans overnight before they eat them. But realistically, most people are going to buy a can of beans off the shelf. Does this review do more to give a more realistic assessment of how people actually eat versus how maybe the government would prefer them eat?

VILSACK: It does. Rather than trying to figure out precisely what struggling families were actually purchasing, we asked the question, what would a family - a cost-conscious family purchase in the grocery store that would provide for healthy meals for their family? So it essentially opens up the entire grocery store. And we believe what this will do, along with the dietary guidelines changes, is it'll result in folks being able to purchase more fruits and vegetables, more protein.

And that, at the end of the day, is beneficial to all of us. It improves health outcomes for children. It encourages and improves achievement in school for children. Kids who aren't hungry are better learners...

DAVIS: Yeah.

VILSACK: ...And obviously have better health outcomes.

DAVIS: How do you guarantee that people make healthier choices? Are there more restrictions on how people can spend their money or other incentives to make sure that people do make those choices that the government would like them to see make?

VILSACK: Well, you have to trust folks. There are double-buck programs, where we partner with philanthropic organizations to provide incentives to stretch those SNAP dollars - that folks use them to purchase fruits and vegetables. We've made it more available for SNAP benefits to be redeemed at farmers markets. We do a lot of education as well.

And the reality is SNAP families aren't much different than typical American families in terms of the choices that they make. And we don't want to stigmatize when they go to the grocery store - that they're not going to be judged by folks in the line as their items are being cashed out.

DAVIS: This benefit coincides with a new child tax credit that's going out the door, that's sending monthly cash payments to families. Poverty rates in the country right now are falling to historic lows. I think most people can agree that that is a very good thing. But there is a concern about whether these costs should be paid for. Or do you believe that it's worth adding to the debt for programs like this that so directly help families and children?

VILSACK: So I think you have to take a look at this holistically. Many middle-class working families, low-income families have been struggling and stressed by a variety of activities and issues in their in their home, whether it's child care costs or whether it's food or whether it's college expense or health care. And being able to put together a package that basically addresses those stresses - a summer EBT program, for example, that provides additional nourishment for these kids during the summer who are on free and reduced lunch, providing assistance and help as well for child care facilities to be able to provide more nutritious foods - all of that is designed to strengthen the American family.

And that is key to a stronger and more competitive economy. While you're rebuilding the physical infrastructure of the country, you're also rebuilding, if you will, or strengthening the American family, which is also central to our ability to compete.

DAVIS: Tom Vilsack is the secretary of agriculture. Thanks so much for your time.

VILSACK: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF WILLIAM TYLER'S "GONE CLEAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.