Federal food subsidies are distributed under the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which in Vermont is called 3SquaresVT and provides support to 70,000 Vermonters. For nearly three years of federally-declared “Public Health Emergencies” (PHE), benefits have been increased and work requirements for healthy people aged 18-50 suspended. The supplemental benefit payments will now end, despite the Biden administration’s recent announcement that it will again extend the PHE declaration for COVID’s latest variant.
“Supplemental Nutrition” benefits are generally limited to Vermont residents who claim the Earned Income Tax Credit, or who earn less than 185% of federal poverty level guidelines. For a single person in 2023, the federal poverty level is set at $13,590, so eligible individual participants must earn less than $25,141.50. For two people the FPL is $18,310, creating a $33,873.50 income eligibility requirement. The ceiling rises with increased family members in the household.
The program is administered electronically through debit (EBT) cards: “Each month, money is loaded onto a Vermont EBT card, similar to a debit card, that can be used to purchase groceries where you normally shop, including many grocery stores, convenience stores, and farmers markets.”
Few will object to helping low-income Vermonters get by, especially in times of economic decline. However, there are definitely problems of abuse in this program, including the use of EBT cards for cash withdrawals that are then used to buy illegal drugs, cigarettes, pet food or alcohol. Vermont does not appear to invest much in fraud detection to rectify this problem, instead viewing its role as to maximize how much money it can generate from the federal government:
An estimated $10 million in Federal tax dollars comes to Vermont each month through 3SquaresVT, but if more people who are eligible apply and use these benefits, more money goes into our economy, and could create more jobs in our communities. … You’ve paid into this program through your taxes. It’s your money, you’ve earned this benefit.
It is a sad fact that Vermont’s government views the bloating of bureaucratic budgets as beneficial to economic growth, apparently perceiving that money is merely printed and sprinkled down — but this causes inflation that hurts everyone, especially the middle class. Those with incomes above the federal poverty guidelines are experiencing crushing price increases in heating fuels, rent and food prices that are aggravated if not caused by federal overspending. Interest rates on credit cards and mortgages are also rising steadily.
For three years Americans have witnessed some people receiving payouts under COVID “relief” for food, but also income and rent. In addition to fraud, this has shocked supply lines as people bought consumer products while stuck at home, and has fueled inflation. Citizens have witnessed how inequitable these government-administered economic experiments are.
The 3SquaresVT benefits increased when the federal government declared a PHE under COVID, which was extended last year under monkeypox. But monkeypox could not credibly be used to justify another PHE extension:
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced it would not renew mpox, the virus formerly known as monkeypox, as a public health emergency after January 31, 2023, following a drop in cases. … As of Dec. 2, a total of nearly 30,000 cases and 19 deaths have been confirmed in the U.S. and about 82,000 cases globally.
Instead, the federal PHE declaration was extended on Jan. 11 due to a transmissible COVID-19 omicron subvariant .
CDC data suggest this strain of COVID is less deadly than the original outbreak, and there is speculation that the PHE will not be extended after this round: “Biden officials privately concede the administration sees dwindling benefits in justifying the continuation of the health emergency — especially for a public that’s largely learned to live with the virus.”
The public has learned to live with a virus that mostly impacts the very elderly. But the economic consequences of pumping out money and shutting down the economy continue to impact Vermonters of all ages: Some 20 million more people enrolled in Medicare under COVID restrictions, a 30% increase.
The PHE was renewed for COVID, but due to budget cuts the 15% increase in 3SquaresVT benefits was not. Reversion to pre-COVID benefit levels will commence in March.
Meanwhile, Vermont is grappling with how it will pay for continued universal lunches for the state’s children, extended through summertime. This plan also raises issues of economic efficiency, affordability, and “equity” — these benefits go in part to very wealthy citizens who simply don’t need them, and the cost is proposed to be added to the education budget, which impacts many low-income Vermonters’ property taxes.
The connection between food and economics is fundamental — perhaps one day the Vermont government will fathom how that works, and how “inequitable” the bureaucratic meddling has become.
John Klar is an attorney and farmer residing in Brookfield. © Copyright True North Reports 2023. All rights reserved.