The Ryan Budget Plan: A Path to Hunger

Crumbs on empty plateLast week, House Republicans approved a budget plan titled The Path to Prosperity: A Blueprint for American Renewal.  In his introduction to the budget plan, House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan argues “[t]he social safety net is failing society’s most vulnerable citizens and poised to unravel in the event of a spending-driven debt crisis.”  Unsurprisingly, the Republican budget contains many cuts to the social safety net, including cuts to the Supplemental Food Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamp Program.  The Ryan budget would cut 17 percent of the SNAP budget over ten years, beginning in fiscal year 2013. 

Despite the draconian nature of the SNAP cuts, the Ryan budget proposal is notably short on details regarding how exactly the cuts would be structured.  The only concrete proposal the Republicans offer is to convert the SNAP program into a block grant “tailored for each state’s low-income population” beginning in 2016, with benefits “contingent on work and job training.”  Block grants are fixed sums of money that the federal government gives to the states. These grants are unresponsive to changes in need and fail to provide a stimulus during economic slowdowns.

It is worth reading some of Ryan’s critique of SNAP in detail. Ryan acknowledges that SNAP “serves an important role in the safety net by providing food aid to low-income Americans,” but criticizes the program’s growth.  Ryan writes:

“Enrollment grew from 17.3 million recipients in 2001, to 23.8 million in 2004, to 28.2 million in 2008, to 46.6 million today.  According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “The historical relationship between unemployment and SNAP caseloads diverged in the middle of the decade … As the unemployment rate fell 1.4 percentage points between 2003 and 2007, SNAP caseloads increased by 22 percent.” The trend is one of relentless and unsustainable growth in good years and bad.  The large recession-driven spike came on top of very large increases that occurred during years of economic growth, when the number of recipients should have fallen.”  

According to Ryan, the “unsustainable growth” in SNAP participation has been driven by the program’s structure. In Ryan’s view, because states receive money in proportion to how many people they enroll, they have an incentive to enroll as many people as they can, with no incentives to make sure that SNAP recipients are working or participating in job training programs.

Let’s unpack Ryan’s assertions.  First, where is Ryan getting his numbers?  His numbers describing the relationship between unemployment and SNAP caseloads come from a March 2012 article titled ”What’s Behind the Rise in SNAP Participation?” in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s magazine, Amber Waves.  Ryan’s quotation from the article is selective, to say the least; immediately after the language Ryan quotes describing the decline in unemployment between 2003 and 2007, the authors write that during the same time period, “[t]he number of people in poverty rose by 4 percent, indicating that economic need remained high even as unemployment declined.” 

But Ryan left that part out.

Second, do the article’s authors come to the same conclusion that Ryan does?  Not really.  It is true that, over the last decade, several pieces of legislation allowed states to be more flexible in how they administered SNAP.  As the states improved their application processes and it became easier for people to apply, more people participated in the program.  But there have also been changes in federal policy that have increased SNAP participation. As the Amber Waves authors note, several agricultural bills expanded categories of exempt assets—allowing people with retirement and educational accounts, as well as car owners, to receive SNAP benefits. Ryan also ignores the 2009 increase in benefits that was a part of the American Recovery Reinvestment Act of 2009—an increase that was always intended to be temporary and will expire in November 2013.

As the New York Times pointed out in an editorial about Ryan’s budget plan, “[a]lready, most people who get SNAP benefits use them up in the first two weeks of a month, and many turn to food banks by month’s end. Cutting benefits so sharply would lead to a significant increase in hunger, particularly among children, which would quickly create dangerous ripples through the health and education systems.” Indeed, almost half of SNAP recipients in fiscal year 2010 were children. That fact might be particularly important in Ryan’s analysis. After all, children don’t vote.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has excellent resources for advocates concerned about the Ryan budget’s impact on SNAP, including a comprehensive analysis of the budget’s effects on SNAP recipients and a table describing the cuts’ state-by-state impact.  For example, in Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin, 844,000 people are currently scheduled to receive SNAP benefits in 2013.  That’s 844,000 people who would feel the belt-tightening effect of these cuts.

Clearinghouse Review: Journal of Poverty Law and Policy recognizes the importance of SNAP to legal aid lawyers and other advocates for low-income people, which is why the Review is dedicating its 2012 special issue to hunger and food insecurity.  Historically, the Review has prioritized helping advocates stay current with trends in SNAP advocacy.  The Review recently published articles about the use of SNAP at fast food restaurants and the legality of subjecting participants to new identification requirements such as fingerprinting.  The 2012 special issue will examine SNAP’s past, present, and future, as well as physical, employment-related, and environmental aspects of low-income communities that limit access to nutritious food and affect people’s overall health.  Look for the 2012 special issue of Clearinghouse Review in the fall. 

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