With SNAP Extension, Congress Offered Relief to Food-Insecure Students

Blog Post
Jan. 19, 2021

The New America higher education program is diving into a number of higher education issues impacted by the COVID relief and spending deal in much greater detail in the coming weeks. Visit EdCentral.org for future blog posts.

College students facing food insecurity received some much needed relief in the recent COVID relief and spending package passed by Congress.

There are two archetypal ways college students in pop culture are portrayed getting their meals. One is the student living on an unlimited meal plan at a university with immaculate dining halls and fast food. The other is a student subsisting on ramen noodles and free food they get from events. The first is the exception to the rule and the second, while more common, minimizes the struggle of college students trying to survive.

In reality, a lot of students struggle with food insecurity, especially now during a global pandemic. When the coronavirus pandemic struck in March 2020, many Americans lost jobs and income, exacerbating food and housing insecurity for many students. A survey conducted by New America and Third Way in August of last year found that 46 percent of college students were worried about being able to purchase necessities-like food and housing in the next few weeks to a month. And it could have been worse had Congress not provided emergency grants for college students.

Luckily, Congress gave these students a hand in the latest deal and extended eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as SNAP, to college students who are enrolled at least half-time and meet other income and eligibility requirements. The bill also directs the Department of Education to issue guidance and work with both the Department of Agriculture, which administers SNAP, and institutions to ensure that students know about their potential eligibility. On top of that, Congress included a 15 percent increase in the benefit for all recipients.

While this is a significant step to meeting the basic needs of today’s college students, this provision only lasts until 30 days after the end of the COVID emergency. Congress should make this benefit permanent. Even before the pandemic, a large swath of students enrolled in higher education faced food insecurity. A 2018 survey from the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University found that nearly half of the nearly 86,000 college students surveyed said that they were food insecure in the last month. New America's 2019 Varying Degrees survey found that 46 percent of college students report that the food they bought just didn’t last and they didn’t have enough money to buy more, either often or sometimes. However, the Center for Law and Social Policy found that fewer than four in 10 eligible students receive SNAP. A 2018 report from the Government Accountability Office found that in 2016 there were about 2 million students who were eligible for SNAP benefits who did not report receiving those benefits.

Not only should Congress make this benefit permanent, it should go a step further. The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program or welfare currently only counts postsecondary education towards a recipient’s work requirement for one year which is not long enough to complete a degree. And even during that time, education can only count towards the work requirement after a recipient has worked at a “real” job for twenty hours a week. Given massive unemployment and the personal and public benefits of getting a degree, Congress should change this law and allow—at least from the federal level—education to count towards TANF work requirements.

With the advent of the global pandemic, the loss of employment and income has exacerbated the hunger and housing insecurity experienced by many college students. Luckly, Congress has taken a step towards addressing this by expanding SNAP benefits to college students. But now is the time to do even more, make this change permanent and make education an eligible activity to qualify for TANF. As Congress considers additional ways to provide relief to American families and jumpstart the economy, these changes would provide help to the college students with the most need, and it would be one step towards an equitable recovery.

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