No one who regularly shops for groceries has failed to notice the sharply rising prices of basic commodities including milk, bread and eggs, and how food costs have outpaced the overall inflation rate, which was bad to start with. Yet this month, the enhanced Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP benefits (more generically known as food stamps) provided by the federal government as part of the overall COVID-19 emergency response were allowed to expire. That means that in 32 states, including Maryland, low-income households are seeing dramatic reductions in monthly SNAP credits and in eligibility. That has real-life consequences, particularly in communities struggling with poverty. Nationwide, at least 31 million Americans have been hurt by this. And the double-hit of high prices and loss of benefits means too many will go to bed hungry tonight, many of them children. The vast majority of SNAP beneficiaries are under the age of 18 — more than 60% in Maryland.
For some, there’s even been a third hit. Over $2.5 million in SNAP benefits to 3,800 Marylanders have been stolen through information “skimming” of SNAP electronic payment cards, known as EBT cards. And that’s only the reported fraud cases. There are undoubtedly some victims who don’t even realize they are victims. Thankfully, the Maryland Department of Human Services was recently given permission to use federal funds to restore those benefits as the state agency also moves forward with enhanced security on those EBT cards.
Other local efforts are underway to address the hardship. In Baltimore County, for example, there is a $2 million plan to provide free meals to all Baltimore County Public Schools students, without requiring that families first show they qualify based on income. This has the double-benefit of feeding more youngsters and reducing the social stigma associated with free meals.
The Maryland Food Bank, in turn, has already pledged an added $2 million in grants to local food pantries and other providers, along with a number of other responses including additional fundraising.
Yet, considering the seriousness of this loss (and the terrible timing given the worrisome signs of a looming economic recession), we would call on Gov. Wes Moore and the Maryland General Assembly to take more dramatic action. Specifically, we would expect the state to help refill EBT cards so that low-income individuals and families can afford to feed themselves. Advocates say the cost of such an approach is no small thing — more than $18 million in the current fiscal year and a whopping $68 million in the next. And this expense must be considered just days after new revenue projections released Thursday are down roughly $478 million for the remainder of this fiscal year and next.
Even in the context of $24.7 billion in annual tax revenue, that is no minor concern. Should the economy head south, future revenue projections are likely to follow. A bit of caution is advisable. But against the possibility that people living below the poverty line — most of them children? This isn’t even a close call. Maryland can afford to defer all kinds of spending — from the renovation of the State House to state employee travel expenses to out-of-state conferences — but it can’t afford to tolerate hunger. That would be unacceptable under any circumstance. And it would be scandalous under a newly elected governor who campaigned under the slogan that he would “leave no one behind.”
Tick tock. The 90-day session will be over on April 10, and the budget bill is supposed to be approved by both legislative chambers by the 83rd day or April 3. This is a moment that can define a new administration and demonstrate to the rest of the country that Maryland has its priorities right.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.