Food assistance cuts loom for 1.3 million Michiganders. No legislative action yet
- Emergency federal benefits extended during the COVID-19 pandemic set to expire March 1
- Advocates warn that some low-income households will be hard hit
- No state legislation has been proposed to directly absorb the impact of expiring benefits
LANSING — As food costs rose, Nancy Cromley saw the number of families coming to her for help spike.
“In the last couple months, we saw a 17-percent increase in clients,” Cromley, director of the Green Apple Pantry in Grand Rapids, told Bridge Michigan.
Now, Cromley fears it may get worse.
Roughly 1.3 million Michiganders will see cuts in food assistance benefits beginning next month as additional federal aid during the COVID-19 emergency expires March 1.
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Families eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — a federal program providing monthly stipends to low-income families for food — will see a reduction of at least $95 per month in benefits. Some low-income households could see their food assistance fall by more than $500 a month, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
The looming cuts — compounded by the rising costs of living — have food security advocates warning of a cascade of hardships for SNAP-eligible Michiganders.
“There is a real cliff that many families in our state are going to be facing,” said Julie Cassidy, senior policy analyst for the nonprofit advocacy group Michigan League for Public Policy.
But no state legislation has been proposed to directly address the reduction in benefits.
The only SNAP-related legislation was introduced by Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, who chairs the Senate Housing and Human Services Committee. Senate Bill 35 would eliminate the asset test used to determine SNAP eligibility. Currently, a family must have $15,000 or less in available assets to qualify for food assistance in Michigan.
Some states have passed legislation to absorb the impact of the abrupt reduction in SNAP benefits.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, signed a law earlier this month that nearly doubled the minimum amount of SNAP benefits eligible families can receive from $50 to $95 per month. Murphy said he believes this makes the Garden State the first, if not the only state, to "set an across-the-board minimum benefit,” NorthJersey.com reported.
SNAP-eligible families in Michigan began receiving extra food assistance in April 2020 under the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act. The benefits — meant to provide temporary aid to struggling families during the pandemic — were ended by an omnibus spending bill President Joe Biden signed into effect in December.
A total of 18 states, including Indiana and South Dakota, have already stopped issuing additional benefits. Michigan is one of the remaining 32 states, along with Washington, D.C., to extend the benefits through February.
Beginning March 1, a four-person household in Michigan with a net monthly income of $1,700 could see their food assistance drop from $939 to $429. Single-person households with a net monthly income of $700 could see their total monthly SNAP benefit drop from $281 to $71.
But food costs remain higher than pre-pandemic levels.
The national Consumer Price Index — an indicator for market prices for goods and services — for food rose from 1.8 percent in January 2020 to 10.1 percent last month, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
As a result, families affected by the elimination of extra food assistance may cut food expenses out of their budget, Cassidy with the Michigan League for Public Policy said.
“It's one of the easiest and quickest ways that a family can cut their expenses,” she said. “Those additional dollars helped families afford basic needs like housing, utilities and medicine without having to sacrifice nutrition.”
The federal government made similar cuts in 2013 when it rolled back extra SNAP benefits issued in 2009 to help low-income families offset the impact of the Great Recession. In 2009, SNAP-eligible households saw an average 15-20 percent increase in benefits, according to an analysis by the progressive think tank Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Researchers say the 2013 cuts increased risk of food insecurity among SNAP-eligible households. Eligible families had to cut down food costs by foregoing some groceries or adopting a less healthy diet.
Cromley, the food pantry director, said families are often a crisis away from needing food assistance.
“A lot of times, a family will come in that we haven’t seen for six months. They will say, ‘I was okay, but I had a medical situation or my rent increased, and now I need a little help.’”
State Rep. Stephanie Young, a Detroit Democrat who chairs the House Families, Children and Seniors Standing Committee, told Bridge on Thursday the imminent cut is why she is scheduling a hearing on SNAP benefits presented by the state Department of Health and Human Services.
Young said her priority is to make sure SNAP-eligible families know the cut is coming. But legislation to help absorb the abrupt impact some families face will have to wait until the department has a chance to speak before the committee, she said.
“A phase-in approach potentially could have been a better way to handle this,” Young said of the federal decision.
When asked about the expiring benefits, Bobby Leddy, spokesperson for Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, pointed to Whitmer’s budget proposal, which includes $160 million to provide free school meals for all students and annual funding to other food programs.
“Governor Whitmer is ready to roll up her sleeves and work with the legislature to get this done because Michiganders are counting on them,” Leddy said in a Tuesday statement.
Leddy also touted several Whitmer-endorsed policies, including expanding the state Earned Income Tax Credit for lower-income workers, repealing the retirement tax and spending $800 million to offer one-time $180 checks to all Michigan tax filers.
While others have bipartisan support, the relief check proposal is controversial as Republicans fear it would bypass a 2015 law that would trigger a permanent income tax cut when the state has too much revenue. The tax deal is currently awaiting immediate effect before the Senate.
Senate Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt, R-Porter Township, said in a Thursday statement he believes the federal rollback makes sense, noting that Biden already said the pandemic was over in September and the state’s unemployment rate is returning to pre-pandemic levels. The national COVID-19 emergency declarations, however, will end May 11.
“There is, however, a continuing problem with high inflation under this president, which is why Senate Republicans have been fighting to provide real, on-going relief to all Michigan families and seniors, including $500-per-child tax credits, a tax relief for all seniors, and protecting the promised income tax cut.”
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