Our publisher, S. Mitra Kalita, noticed recently that lines at food banks and pantries seem to be getting longer, even as we hear that the economy is doing well. Was it just a fluke? We turned to civics reporter Felipe De La Hoz, who explains why, unfortunately, it isn’t a fluke.
The first thing to understand here is it’s been kind of a build-up over months; there isn’t a specific, acute circumstance that has triggered a run to food pantries or made food less affordable. It’s a combination of factors, some of them very direct and some a little more diffuse. Among the former is the fact that Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — the contemporary official name for food stamps — disbursements actually decreased as a result of the end of pandemic-era allotments in February and March of this year. We’ve written before about the general dissolution of what had been a de facto expanded social safety net brought on by Covid-19, and the expanded SNAP benefits were part of that.
Not to say many New Yorkers wouldn’t take a decreased disbursement –if they could get their SNAP benefits at all. For months now, the city’s Human Resources Administration has struggled mightily to process applications within the statutory timeframe of 30 days (while SNAP is a federal benefit, it is administered by states and localities). In January, the Legal Aid Society actually sued the Adams administration in federal court over its slowness in processing applications, resulting in a July court order to begin clearing its backlog and get to standard 30-day processing by next March.
Data compiled by lawyers for the class-action plaintiffs showed that at the time the suit was filed, there were over 28,000 applications for both SNAP and direct cash assistance (which was processed even more slowly) pending past their due dates. Despite the litigation, data from the mayor’s management report showed that for the fiscal year ending in June, just 40% of SNAP applications were being processed on time. There seem to be several reasons for this, among them that the city’s workforce has shrunk, putting the onus on fewer staff members to process increasing volumes of applications, leading to delays.
This all happened to coincide, as most of you probably know, with a massive increase in inflation, which towards the middle of last year was putting the year-over-year urban Consumer Price Index in the combined New York-Newark-Jersey City region at almost 7% — lower than the national inflation, but certainly significant. Inflation has since come down a bit, with the same figure now at 3.5%, but these issues ultimately compound. If the cost of living increases, lower-income people often take on more debt or set aside bills in order to cover basic living expenses, and inflation coming down often just means they’re catching up.
On the other side of the equation there’s cash flow, and we know that the pandemic saw some increases in savings and wages, though that’s been unevenly distributed. A recent study by the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs draws on reams of economic data to establish that real wages (inflation-adjusted) grew far more for higher-wage industries like finance and technology than they did for lower-income industries like food service and building services, with the latter seeing 2.5% gains over an already high baseline and the latter seeing only 0.5% gains in the same period. New York is raising its minimum wage, and eventually tying it to inflation, but that’s not going into full effect until 2027.
In any case, a significant number of folks relying on SNAP might be unemployed, and those also relying on food pantries might be recent immigrants, part of a group that is both ineligible for SNAP and has a hard time finding employment at all, for legal or practical reasons.
Even in the hypothetical where SNAP was working exactly as intended, the program has always been something of a dog’s breakfast, to borrow an apt British expression. Like much of the American safety net, the contemporary program traces back to Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty and the broader Great Society programs (after a more limited iteration that ran for a few years around the same time as WWII). And like many of the other planks in that effort, it saw rapid expansion and general political acceptance during the ‘60s and ‘70s before the neoliberal turn of the ‘80s and ‘90s turned it from a popular success story of anti-poverty policy making to a symbol of bloated government keeping undeserving people on the dole.
Nonetheless, it was always clear that the program couldn’t be scrapped completely, particularly during economic shocks where its absence would basically starve people, and so it has kind of expanded and contracted, with Republicans in particular often gunning to tack on restrictions that wouldn’t necessarily phase it out but make it less useful and more difficult to navigate. That resulted in bizarre rules. The most infamous one was perhaps prohibiting the use of SNAP for hot prepared foods, but not similar cold ones. So, you can’t get a warm rotisserie chicken, but you can get a cooked but pre-packaged cold one.
An important explanation for the current predicament is that these reforms have led to significant enrollment hurdles that both keep people from accessing the benefits and slow down the processing. There are reports of people waiting on hold for hours for interviews that are required for receipt of benefits. It’s a marker of a preoccupation with keeping out everyone considered ineligible, as opposed to keeping in as many eligible people as possible, even if it makes a handful of ineligible folks get the benefit.
That all of this has had an impact on food security here isn’t theoretical or anecdotal. The Salvation Army, for example, has reported a 53% increase in meals served in the first nine months of 2023 as opposed to the same period last year. Apart from increases arising from migrant arrivals, most of the recent trend lines show people leaving NYC, meaning the food bank usage is going up even as population has come down a bit. The multifaceted causes make it a difficult problem to address with any one policy shift, but on the ground, it means people who simply don’t have enough to eat, and that’s a tragedy.