Researchers say the Biden administration’s plan to permanently boost the food aid program SNAP, announced this week, is a significant step in addressing the Mountain West's deepening economic inequality.
Beginning in October, people receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits will see an average increase of $36.24 per month, or $1.19 per day, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But the move is not enough to ease widening disparities in certain parts of the region, resort towns in particular, where service workers comprise the backbone of the economy as a constant stream of tourists and wealthy second-home owners drive up the cost of living.
Elaine Waxman, senior fellow at the Urban Institute, points to places like Jackson, Wyo.; Sun Valley, Idaho; Breckenridge, Colo. and Park City, Utah, which have some of the country's biggest discrepancies between the maximum SNAP benefit and the average cost of an inexpensive meal.
Communities positioned close to popular tourist areas, such as Jackson’s proximity to Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks, tend to face “considerably higher” food costs, Waxman said.
Waxman’s research revealed that, before the pandemic, SNAP benefits failed to cover the cost of an inexpensive meal in 91% of counties across the nation. After the pandemic hit, the federal government temporarily boosted the program by 15% in March, cutting in half the number of counties where SNAP recipients were struggling to pay for food.
The Biden administration’s latest move to permanently boost SNAP benefits by roughly 27% will halve that number again, leaving just 21% of counties in America where people receiving benefits still struggle to pay for a modest meal, Mountain West resort towns among them.
Waxman is still working to pinpoint exactly what that disparity will look like, but she notes that even when the program received a 15% bump, SNAP benefits fell 60% short in Sun Valley and 50% short in Jackson in covering the cost of a basic meal.
There are a number of other factors fueling high food costs in rural areas, Waxman says, including transportation and fewer grocers yielding less competitively priced food.
Escalating costs in the West, whether from food or housing, point to a broader problem when it comes to getting different kinds of aid into the hands of people who need it, said Charles Brennan, deputy director of research at Colorado Center on Law and Policy.
He says the poverty line — a benchmark created by the federal government in the 1960s to measure poverty — should be reconfigured to capture the true scope of economic insecurity in America.
The poverty line is based on the cost of food – but excludes costs for necessities such as health care, housing, transportation and child care.
Across the Mountain West, housing costs rose by more than 20% from April of last year to this year.
If the government incorporated the impacts of these costs on families of various sizes and compositions, we would get “a much more realistic measure of poverty,” Brennan said.
When these factors are taken into the account, a considerable number of people slip through the social safety net. For example, the Colorado Center on Law and Policy found that the potential number of people in Colorado living below the poverty line in 2019 rose from 9% to 26% when accounting for the costs of housing, health care, child care and transportation.
“It just goes to show the big disparity that exists between the poverty line as measured by the federal government and sort of a true measurement of what families need to cover their basic expenses,” Brennan said.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
You won’t find a paywall here. Come as often as you like — we’re not counting. You’ve found a like-minded tribe that cherishes what a free press stands for. If you can spend another couple of minutes making a pledge of as little as $5, you’ll feel like a superhero defending democracy for less than the cost of a month of Netflix.