Not since 1918 has our country endured such a widespread medical emergency as the Coronavirus pandemic of 2020. Over 550,000 Americans and nearly 2,200 Nebraskans have lost their lives. Over 200,000 Cornhuskers tested positive for the virus and many face lingering complications. At least three of our state senators contracted the virus.
Nebraska, with modest employment losses, still processed over 160,000 unemployment claims during the pandemic. Even as the economy returns to normal, Nebraska reports 30,000 fewer jobs than in February 2020. Hard-working Nebraskans in service industries, restaurants, retail stores and travel-related businesses have been particularly hard hit. Employment in food services and accommodations is still down almost 13%, or 11,000 jobs, from pre-pandemic levels. According to the Omaha World-Herald, jobs in arts, entertainment and recreation are down 16%. Employees in these industries often work at two or more jobs just to make ends meet.
People who receive SNAP benefits are not slackers — 80% of Nebraska’s SNAP families include at least one working adult.
More than 1.4 million veterans live in poverty. Sadly, one in four veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan do not know where their next meal will come from. In addition, half the children in military schools on bases across the United States are eligible for free or reduced lunches. And, nearly half of SNAP families have children.
Farm families are also overrepresented among SNAP recipients. It’s sad irony; in Nebraska with the food production as our primary industry, food insecurity is more pervasive in our rural countryside than in urban areas.
SNAP benefit eligibility is determined using a household’s gross and net income numbers. In 1996 the broad-based categorical eligibility was set at 130% of gross income. Twenty-five years later Nebraska is among 20 states that have retained the original 130% of gross income limits. During this quarter-century, 30 states raised the gross income limit to as high as 200% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL).
In the Midwest, Kansas, Missouri and South Dakota still use 130% of gross income eligibility limit. However, Iowa and Minnesota have limits of 160% and 165% respectively. Colorado, North Dakota and Wisconsin use a gross income eligibility limit of 200% of the FPL.
SNAP benefits are fully funded by the federal government and, as such, the only cost to the state is a 50/50 match with Uncle Sam for administrative costs. However, as part of the most recent stimulus package, the federal government is providing additional funding to states for SNAP administration. Thus, Nebraska will receive $3 million for SNAP administrative costs through 2023.
SNAP benefits are a win-win for families and our communities, too. The USDA projects that for every dollar of SNAP benefits received, $1.70 in additional economic activity is generated. The “multiplier effect” means that for every $1 billion of retail sales generated by SNAP, $340 million in farm production is created and $110 million in farm value is added.
No one can deny that food insecurity is still a reality in our state. The Food Bank for the Heartland distributed 88% more meals than normal between March 2020 and February 2021. The Food Bank of Lincoln distributed 45% more food than in the previous year. Together, Inc. had a 266% increase in visits in 2020, and the Center for People in Need served 71% more households in 2020 than in 2019. SNAP benefits are not overly generous — just $1.27 per meal per person.
“That hunger and malnutrition should persist in a land such as ours is embarrassing and intolerable,” President Richard Nixon said in a May 1969 message to Congress. Former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole described the food stamp program as the most important social program advance since the creation of Social Security. It has proven to be more effective than any other program at lifting Americans out of deep poverty, Nixon said in a May 1969 message to Congress.
John McCollister, of Omaha, is a state senator representing District 20 in the Nebraska Legislature.