February 2023 is the last month many low-income food assistance recipients across the country will get additional help buying groceries due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But in Kentucky that aid ended 10 months prematurely due to the passage of Senate Joint Resolution (SJR) 150 in the 2022 Kentucky General Assembly. That resolution prematurely terminated the Kentucky COVID-19 state of emergency, and in doing so ended the acceptance of additional pandemic-related food assistance paid for entirely by the federal government.
In December, Congress passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023, which, along with funding the federal government, made February the final month additional food assistance would be available. The value of the federally-funded benefits Kentucky lost because of the early termination of the additional assistance was just under $56 million a month. That means the state turned down a total of $558 million between May 2022 and February 2023 that would have otherwise come to the state to fight hunger.
SNAP, formerly called food stamps, provides funds on a monthly basis to low-income households that they may only spend on groceries. The use of SNAP tends to increase during downturns, when unemployment rises and incomes fall. In March of 2020, Congress acted to alleviate hunger during the depths of the pandemic and subsequent downturn by providing the maximum SNAP benefit amount per person rather than the normal pro-rated amount based on income. These emergency allotments, or EAs, were conditional on the enactment of both a federal Public Health Emergency and a state-level emergency declaration related to COVID-19. SNAP EAs received by Kentucky from April 2020 through April of 2022 provided over $1.3 billion in additional funds to help Kentuckians avoid hunger.
The additional benefits provided by EAs also helped local economies, especially early in the pandemic when consumer spending plummeted, because SNAP dollars are spent quickly in local grocery stories, convenience stores and farmers markets. But SJR 150 ended Kentucky’s emergency declaration related to COVID-19 and barred the executive branch from acting on past declarations, preventing the Department for Community Based Services from accepting and disbursing the funding for EAs starting in May of 2022.
The average benefit amount fell from $244 per person while the EAs were being distributed to $150 afterwards and the monthly benefit amount fell to as little as $20 for some. SNAP benefits are prorated based on income, so working families and seniors with some retirement income saw the biggest drop in benefits when the EAs ended.
Because SNAP benefits, including the EAs that Kentuckians received from April 2020 to April 2022, are federally funded, cutting them early did not save Kentucky any money. The opportunity cost of SJR 150 in the loss of federal funds and increased hunger should serve as a warning to future General Assemblies. When pursuing changes that impact the safety net policy, it is important to consider all of the consequences. The economic and health benefits from programs like SNAP are significant, and needlessly cutting them results in more hunger and a poorer Kentucky.