The Greater Boston Food Bank estimates that about 32% of adults in Massachusetts, or 1.8 million people, experienced food insecurity in 2021. And hunger is not evenly distributed: People of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community, along with families with children, tend to fare worse in response to skyrocketing inflation that's making it even more difficult to afford food. Those who participate in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program are seeing an increase in monthly benefits. But even those who champion the food assistance program say there's much more work to be done to ensure no one faces food insecurity.
Patricia Baker, a senior policy analyst at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, spoke with GBH's All Things Considered host Arun Rath about the gaps that SNAP recipients still face. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Arun Rath: First off, can you give us a sense of how many people in Massachusetts are relying on SNAP?
Patricia Baker: Currently, the Massachusetts SNAP caseload is about a million individuals, 670,000 households in the commonwealth. We have one of the largest SNAP participation rates in the country based on our population.
Rath: And can you give us sort of a thumbnail of how the federally funded program calculates each individual's benefits, and maybe the problems with that?
Baker: That's an excellent question. In general, the SNAP program calculates people's income if they're under 200% of the poverty level, but then it looks at their net income, which doesn't take into account a lot of costs of living. For every $3 of net income you have, you lose a dollar of SNAP benefits. So the maximum benefits that people may see posted are not the benefits they normally get if they have countable income.
And unfortunately, under the federal rules, a lot of expenses aren't allowed to be fully realized, like shelter costs are capped artificially low at under $700 a month [and] you can't claim medical expenses unless you're over 60 or severely disabled. So these are the costs of living that really undermine the ability of the program to serve everybody fully.
Rath: And the cost of living, of course, varies quite a bit between states. And as we know here in Massachusetts, it's one of the most expensive places to live in the country. Is that taken into consideration at all? And if not, is there a chance it could be?
Baker: Unfortunately, the costs of living around the country are not taken into consideration. With the exception of Alaska and Hawaii, every state applies the same rules for the most part. And not only is it more costly to live in Massachusetts, but the cost of food alone — we're the second-highest cost of food right now in the nation for lots of reasons, including that we don't produce as much food in the state and the costs of delivery of that food — all of which contributes to higher food costs for the commonwealth.
Rath: Is there any chance or any kind of push to get that taken into consideration? What would be a good way to do that?
Baker: We were really thrilled to be part of the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health last week, and a number of the initiatives that President [Joe] Biden included in the White House conference are ones that we're hoping get implemented, but we're also looking closely at the 2023 Farm Bill.
Jim McGovern, the congressman from Western Massachusetts, was really responsible for getting the White House conference going and he's been a huge supporter of a number of initiatives that would improve the SNAP program. One is just basing the SNAP benefits on a higher threshold than what's called the Thrifty Food Plan, which is absolutely the lowest threshold for evaluating food. Second is to allow households to claim their actual shelter costs, which would help Massachusetts residents. And [third is allowing] everybody to be able to claim out-of-pocket health care costs that they don't get reimbursed. Those three factors alone, I think, would make the SNAP program much more responsive to people's basic dietary needs — and particularly as we're coming out of COVID and the challenges people face getting jobs, getting to work, all the expenses involved in supporting themselves.
Rath: And there are moves afoot in Congress to to address the shelter costs right now.
Baker: Right. That's correct. [U.S.] Rep. Alma Adams has filed legislation that we are actively supporting, which would address some of those provisions and also would make sure that residents of Puerto Rico would have access to the SNAP benefits as well. They don't get the SNAP program and as a result, they have not been able to receive the kinds of disaster SNAP benefits that kick in when a state is suffering from a natural disaster. So Rep. Adams' bill would go a long way to making the SNAP program really responsive to people's needs. And we're very much supporting that legislation, as is the bulk of the Massachusetts congressional delegation.
Rath: And if the federal program is not meeting those needs, what is happening at the state level in states like Massachusetts to fill in that gap?
Baker: That's an excellent question. We really actually applaud the Massachusetts Legislature and the Baker administration for passing legislation this past August to close the SNAP gap, which are about 700,000 individuals in the state — very low income — getting Medicaid but not getting SNAP. And under the new law, under the new policy that's in place ... now you can simply apply for SNAP through a checkbox process on your Medicaid application, which allows the state to then use your Medicaid eligibility to enroll you in the SNAP program and not make you submit lots of paperwork. So that's a really positive step forward. We're thrilled that that legislation has passed and huge thanks to Sen. Sal DiDomenico and Rep. Jay Livingstone for spearheading that.
Second, we really appreciate the Baker administration seeking every possible waiver they can to simplify access to the program and to increase what's called the fuel assistance or standard utility allowance deduction. It's a little complicated, but they asked the USDA to allow them to boost the value of that — which for households that can claim all their shelter costs, will make a difference. And that will benefit a lot of seniors and persons with disabilities.
But the state's hands are tied because it's [a] 100% federally funded program. [Lawmakers need] to push hard to get the legislation through. That will lift the benefits for everybody in the nation and recognize the variations between states by lifting the shelter cap amount, which is an artificially low amount. Families should not be forced to choose between heating and eating. And that's what we're worried about this winter.
Rath: Patricia, this has been really illuminating. Thank you.
Baker: You're welcome. It's a pleasure talking with you.