Biden Takes Early, Bold Actions to Address Hunger, Poverty, Health Care

By Elizabeth Lower-Basch

On Friday, President Biden signed an Executive Order on Economic Relief Related to the COVID-19 Pandemic. Signing this order on just the second full day in office sends a strong message that the Biden-Harris Administration understands the critical role that public benefit programs play in helping people meet their basic needs. It also signals that the administration will do everything in its power to ensure people receive the help they need – both in the immediate COVID-19 crisis and on an ongoing basis. CLASP had called for the new administration to address poverty, hunger, and health care needs by removing barriers to program access, and we are pleased by these strong and timely steps.

In the accompanying Presidential statement and fact sheets, the new administration makes clear that it is pushing forward on multiple tracks:

Calling for Congressional Action

In his remarks, President Biden called for Congress to pass the American Rescue Plan, which includes additional stimulus relief, extended increases in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and unemployment benefits beyond their current expiration dates until they are no longer needed, more rental and child care assistance, and temporarily expanded refundable tax credits to cut child poverty in half. The administration can’t make these happen without Congressional approval, but it can use the Presidential platform to put pressure on Congress to act.

Rapid Administrative Action

The Executive Order calls on federal agencies to immediately take all steps within their control to increase the support to people experiencing COVID-related hardship. While the EO does not list all these activities, the accompanying fact sheet lifts up these examples:

  • Increasing the value of Pandemic-EBT benefits provided to children when schools and child care centers are closed;
  • Allowing the nearly 40 percent of SNAP households whose incomes are so low that they already qualify for the maximum benefit to receive the temporary emergency allotments of extra SNAP benefits that Congress authorized in response to the COVID crisis;
  • Clarifying that people who refuse employment when their working conditions are unsafe can still receive unemployment insurance; and
  • Improving outreach and claiming mechanisms for the up to 8 million eligible households who have not yet received the stimulus payment issued last March.

Some of the improvements are happening already – the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) announced the 15 percent increase in Pandemic-EBT on Friday morning. Others may take longer to implement; for example, since the previous administration claimed not having the legal authority to allow states to provide SNAP emergency allotments to the lowest income households – and had made that claim in court – FNS will need to get approval from the Department of Justice to change that policy.

Building a Foundation for Longer-Term Improvements

The Biden-Harris Administration’s actions also reflect the principle that actions responding to an immediate crisis should also move us in the direction we want to be heading after the crisis.

Under the new order, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will also re-evaluate the Thrifty Food Plan, which is the standard used to set the value of SNAP allotments. Advocates have long argued that plan underestimates the real cost of providing a nutritious diet and makes unrealistic assumptions about SNAP recipients’ ability to spend lots of time preparing food and shopping at the lowest-cost retailers. As a result, many families struggle to meet their food needs once their SNAP benefits run out each month. The 2018 Farm Bill had already instructed USDA to reevaluate the Thrifty Food Plan by 2022; beginning this process now will start SNAP moving toward meeting people’s real nutritional needs.

Finally, the fact sheet says the administration will create an interagency benefit coordination structure to enable “effective and equitable distribution of government assistance.” While this may sound wonky, it’s one of the main points we made in our recommendations to the Biden-Harris transition team about how to address hunger, poverty, and health care. Most people with low incomes are eligible for benefits from multiple programs. But they often don’t get needed help due to confusing and duplicative administrative processes. Poorly run programs take time away from both family and work, reduce participants’ confidence in government, and contribute to the stigma of receiving help. It's great news that the Biden-Harris Administration is committing to coordinating across agencies to make sure people get the help they need to thrive—during the pandemic and beyond.