When the pandemic forced many low-wage workers out of their jobs in 2020, food insecurity shot up in Massachusetts. Now, despite a gradual decline throughout this year, hunger rates remain much higher than in 2019.
And with pandemic-era benefits ending soon, the recent federal boost to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — its biggest-ever expansion — may not be enough to turn the tide.
On average, each SNAP participant received about $121 monthly before the pandemic — distributed through electronic benefits transfer cards and generally to buy food items only. The increase will up that amount by $36. But the change takes effect on Oct. 1, right after the temporary 15-percent jump in maximum SNAP benefits expires. As a result, the net increase for most SNAP recipients will only be about $8.
“The high-level percentage that’s in the news sounds like, wow, that’s a huge amount. The reality on the ground is it’s pretty minimal,” said Pat Baker, senior policy analyst at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. “It’s really about softening the blow of a loss of a COVID boost that was put in place last December.”
An estimated 314,000 Massachusetts workers are slated to lose their unemployment benefits Sept. 4, according to think tank The Century Foundation. Even though employers are struggling to fill job openings, some people ― especially those lacking affordable child care options ― may be unable to re-enter the workforce.
Some hope that the recently added federal child tax credit payments will keep food insecurity from dramatically increasing in the coming months. But Annalise Sheppard, co-chair of the Boston Food Access Council, which brings local food advocates together, said it is too soon to tell whether it will be a lifeline. And it still can’t serve all those who need assistance.
“For the people without children who still try to live and work in Massachusetts, where housing costs aren’t considered for SNAP applications, it’s still really hard to not be food insecure and to get assistance,” Sheppard said. So we’re still seeing the same core group of people left behind.
At one point during the pandemic, Massachusetts had one of the highest rates of food insecurity in the country. This makes sense, Sheppard said, because it was one of the first states to shut down due to COVID-19.
Project Bread’s FoodSource Hotline, which helps people apply for SNAP benefits, is still riding the surge of calls that flooded in at the beginning of the pandemic. While call volume is no longer at its 2020 peak, the impending loss of unemployment benefits and end of the 15 percent SNAP boost has Project Bread chief executive Erin McAleer anticipating a “huge spike” in calls come October.
Even for those who qualify for food assistance, a slew of complications pose hurdles to accessing SNAP. A new report by Project Bread found that as of March, nearly 660,000 of eligible people in the state were not enrolled, with more than a quarter of those in the “SNAP gap” being children.
One roadblock to enrollment comes in the form of complex rules about about who is eligible. Typically, there is a five-year waiting period for lawful permanent residents. Exceptions are made for refugees or people granted asylum in the United States. But those who are not yet eligible may have children who are, leading to further confusion.
Some people assume they do not qualify because they work full time, even if they earn low wages. Others no longer qualified after increased unemployment pay kicked in during the pandemic and didn’t realize they were eligible again once the $600-per-week federal supplement expired.
“You see this rollercoaster of participation in the program,” Baker said. “And when benefits did expire a year ago, people clawed their way back on very slowly.”
For Chelsea resident Maribel Lopez, the loss of food stamps pushed her into a “horrible” situation. When she lost her job to the pandemic, Lopez used SNAP to pay for groceries while her unemployment money went toward rent. But even with $600 a week in added federal unemployment, she still had to borrow money from her landlord to cover monthly payments.
“I looked for help everywhere: at churches, at places that were giving donations of food boxes,” Lopez said through a translator. “I went to the Salvation Army. And I used up my savings.”
At times, she even went hungry. Now Lopez is back on SNAP — but just as her financial situation has begun improving, her unemployment benefits are about to end.
“I feel frustrated,” she said. “That said, I have been surviving. And I’m just doing it little by little.”
Language also makes it harder for some Asian and Latino residents to apply for SNAP, according to Project Bread’s survey findings. Lopez, for example, applied with guidance from a Spanish-language operator on the organization’s FoodSource Hotline, which provides help in 180 languages.
The report also found that while nearly 80 percent of respondents said they had experienced food insecurity, about 30 percent knew little to nothing about SNAP. More than a third showed concern about being judged for using the program, and nearly half worried they would be siphoning benefits from others who may need them more.
Catherine Lynn, an organizational member of the Boston Food Access Council, which brings local food advocates together, said someone who is eligible for SNAP does not take benefits from anyone else.
“You pay into Social Security and your retirement fund, and that’s there for you as a cushion when you retire,” said Lynn, who also directs communications and public affairs at the Greater Boston Food Bank. “Same thing with your taxes: You pay taxes and you’re paying into a system that is designed to help you when there are times of crisis.”
But many of the noncitizens who pay these taxes still avoid applying for SNAP for fear of jeopardizing their immigration status, according to the Project Bread report.
A policy of the Trump administration had allowed immigration officials to deny so-called green cards to those deemed likely to need public assistance. The policy was rescinded by the Biden administration, but its impact lingers.
“It still has the chilling and ripple effects that immigrant families are still very nervous about applying for this program,” McAleer said. “There’s the root causes for hunger, but also, there’s been racist policies around food access itself.”
McAleer said the Commonwealth’s Department of Transitional Assistance has done a “really great job” in confronting challenges to applying for SNAP during the pandemic by requiring less paperwork and fewer in-person interviews — but that there is still ample room for policy change, on the state and federal levels.
“Part of the reason we had a hunger crisis through COVID is because the system we had in place before wasn’t working,” she said. “We need to rebuild stronger and make sure that we are finally addressing food insecurity in a holistic and systemic way in Massachusetts, but also across the country.”
Angela Yang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.