Bipartisan bill increasing SNAP benefits lands on Governor Murphy’s desk

Minimum SNAP benefit would rise from $50 to $95

By: - February 3, 2023 7:14 am

Lawmakers moved to raise the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program benefits months before a pandemic-related bonus is set to be taken away. (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

The Senate unanimously approved a bill Thursday to prevent some Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients from seeing a drop in their monthly benefits, sending the measure to Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk.

The bill would nearly double the minimum benefit levels for SNAP, which provides food aid to low-income families, raising the benefit floor from $50 to $95 and allowing the Department of Human Services to increase it further if it finds a need.

“In a state that’s called the Garden State, that’s so flush with farms, making sure that this benefit stays and doesn’t get reduced to $50 is extraordinary,” said Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the senate’s majority leader and sponsor of the bill.

During the pandemic, Congress approved emergency allotments for the SNAP program that boosted how much recipients received monthly, but that allowance is set to expire at the start of March.

As of November, roughly 769,000 New Jersey residents across 397,000 households were enrolled in SNAP, a spokesperson for the Department of Human Services said.

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin said families should not be forced to choose between buying food for their families and paying to keep their lights on. (Courtesy of New Jersey Governor’s Office)

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex), the bill’s prime Assembly sponsor, said the increased minimum would keep SNAP benefits level for roughly 46,000 of those households.

“That’s critical not only because people should never be forced to choose between feeding themselves and keeping the lights on, but because we know overwhelmingly that a better nourished and more food secure New Jersey makes for a stronger one,” he said in a statement. “I look forward to the governor signing this bill.”

The bill would require the Department of Human Services, which administers SNAP benefits at the state level, to pay for benefits using available federal aid before dipping into state funds.

Costs borne by the state will rise after emergency SNAP allotments end in April, and while the Office of Legislative Services said it could not determine exactly how much the shift will impact state coffers, it’s likely to cost millions of dollars annually.

Ruiz said the added price tag is a concern as the state approaches a budget cycle expected to hinge on declining state revenue, but she said costs are a more pressing concern for those enrolled in SNAP. She recounted a challenge she and other lawmakers undertook years ago to live on a SNAP beneficiary’s food budget.

“It gets to a point where at the end, you barely have any money, and you have to make it stretch. I can tell you I was tired, I was grumpy, and I wasn’t focused,” she said, adding, “This is an investment in human capital.”

The Senate unanimously approved a separate bill that would eliminate a 20-hour weekly work requirement for college students enrolled in the nutrition assistance program.

Removing that work requirement would largely keep the availability of post-pandemic SNAP benefits for college students in line with where it’s been for much of the COVID-19 crisis.

Under pandemic rules, college students who were enrolled at least part-time at their universities can apply for SNAP benefits so long as they qualify for a state or federally financed work-study program or if their expected family contribution for the current academic year was zero, as would be the case for families with income of $24,000 or less.

But those rules are set to end with the federal public health emergency, which President Joe Biden reportedly plans to let lapse in May.

Because SNAP is a federal program, the bill loosening work requirements for university students would remain inoperative until the federal government waives the work requirement through legislation, regulatory changes, or other authorization.

The measure has yet to reach a committee in the Assembly. The Assembly Human Services Committee, where the bill was referred, had no meetings scheduled as of Thursday.

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.