Food Stamps: GAO Recommends Changing Benefit Calculations, but Will the USDA Follow Up?

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Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits are a lifeline for American households that can’t afford healthy food on their current incomes. Like certain other federal government programs, SNAP benefits are adjusted for inflation. But a new report from the Government Accounting Office suggests that the way benefits have been calculated should be changed.

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SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, is a food purchasing assistance program run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and administered at the state level. In a Thursday blog, the GAO looked at the USDA’s recalculation of key food assistance benefits in 2021 and found “problems” with the calculations.

As the GAO noted, SNAP benefits are calculated based on the costs of items in the Thrifty Food Plan, which is a market basket of groceries designed to provide a healthy, budget-conscious diet for a family of four. SNAP benefit amounts are updated each year by adjusting the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan for inflation.

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Before 2021, the USDA periodically updated the specific foods and beverages that make up the Thrifty Food Plan but kept the cost of the plan constant at 1975 levels. By extension, this also kept the buying power of SNAP benefits the same, according to the GAO.

As GOBankingRates previously reported, the USDA recalculated the Thrifty Food Plan in 2021 to reflect changes to food prices, the latest dietary guidelines and trends in what Americans buy and eat. The result was that the USDA allowed the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan to increase beyond inflation, approving a 21% increase in benefits — the first increase in SNAP households’ buying power in 45 years. The changes took effect in October 2021, just as special COVID-19-related SNAP benefits were set to expire.

“The change helped ensure that people depending on food assistance didn’t experience a decrease in benefits during a critical time,” the GAO blog said. “But there were problems with the calculations that led to the increase.”

One problem was that the USDA accelerated its update to the Thrifty Food Plan in response to economic conditions at the time. The agency took two-and-a-half months to do what was originally planned for eight months.

Faced with a shorter timeline, the USDA “didn’t take certain steps to ensure the update was robust and transparent,” the GAO said. For example, the USDA did not include a formal peer review. It also didn’t analyze or test the update with real-world SNAP households before declaring it to be “practical and consistent” with Americans’ consumption habits.

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“As a result, [the] USDA can’t be sure that the benefit recalculation reflects the true costs of a practical, convenient, and varied diet that supports realistic, healthy eating for SNAP households,” the GAO said, although it did not provide further details on what those costs are and how the USDA recalculation might have negatively impacted SNAP beneficiaries.

Going forward, the USDA is now required by law to update the Thrifty Food Plan every five years. In a report issued last month, the GAO made eight recommendations to the USDA that would “improve the quality, integrity, and transparency of future updates.”

Among the recommendations is that the USDA develop policies to ensure that Thrifty Food Plan reevaluations “follow key project management practices, peer review guidelines, and quality standards,” and that the USDA publish information to allow external parties to reproduce results.

Whether the USDA follows those recommendations — and how doing so might impact SNAP benefits — remains an open question. As the GAO noted, the USDA “did not explicitly agree or disagree with the recommendations but disagreed with GAO’s selection and application of certain criteria.”

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For its part, the GAO said it “believes the criteria were appropriate and stands by the findings, conclusions, and recommendations.”

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About the Author

Vance Cariaga is a London-based writer, editor and journalist who previously held staff positions at Investor’s Business Daily, The Charlotte Business Journal and The Charlotte Observer. His work also appeared in Charlotte Magazine, Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal and Business North Carolina magazine. He holds a B.A. in English from Appalachian State University and studied journalism at the University of South Carolina. His reporting earned awards from the North Carolina Press Association, the Green Eyeshade Awards and AlterNet. In addition to journalism, he has worked in banking, accounting and restaurant management. A native of North Carolina who also writes fiction, Vance’s short story, “Saint Christopher,” placed second in the 2019 Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition. Two of his short stories appear in With One Eye on the Cows, an anthology published by Ad Hoc Fiction in 2019. His debut novel, Voodoo Hideaway, was published in 2021 by Atmosphere Press.
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