Giving Thanks for SNAP

Thanksgiving tableThanksgiving is a joyous holiday gathering of plenty and comfort for most Americans. But as we give thanks for our good fortune, we should not forget the many Americans who cannot afford a bountiful feast and who worry everyday about how to put adequate food on the table. The USDA reports that over 48 million Americans are food insecure, meaning they do not regularly have access to enough food for an active, healthy life. Fifteen million are children.

Thankfully, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) has significantly reduced food and financial insecurity. In reaching nearly 75 percent of those who are eligible, SNAP helps over 40 million Americans avoid hunger, lifts 4.7 million Americans out of poverty, and helps 2.4 million children escape severe poverty. (In fact, a recent study shows that this program is twice as effective at reducing poverty as previously thought.)

In addition to increased food security and financial stability, SNAP recipients also enjoy significant health benefits — benefits that can span a lifetime. Research shows that children who receive food stamps are significantly less likely to experience obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes into adulthood. Pregnant women with access to SNAP have more successful births. SNAP truly provides access to healthy and nutritious food, with recipients spending over 85 percent of their benefits on fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy, meat, and meat alternatives.

And SNAP isn’t only beneficial for public health; it’s also a boon for the economy. Research shows that, by giving additional purchasing power to people who are most likely to exercise it immediately, SNAP stimulates the economy. The USDA estimates that every $5 in SNAP benefits generates $9 in economic activity. This translates into tens of thousands of full-time jobs, particularly in the farm and retail industry.

Recognizing the importance of SNAP in the fight against poverty, advocates across the country have worked to ensure that more poor families can access this important benefit. This year, the Shriver Center, in coalition with Heartland Alliance for Human Needs & Human Rights, led a successful advocacy campaign in Illinois that resulted in legislation that extends SNAP eligibility to 40,000 households and 80,000 individuals, over half of whom are children. This benefit is targeted to low-income working families with gross incomes above the income threshold but high living expenses.  

Beyond Illinois, the application process for the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has helped boost SNAP enrollment in 10 other states. Nevada, for instance, saw a 14 percent increase in participation just from the surge in public engagement with assistance programs and administrators caused by Medicaid expansion. A handful of other states have also utilized ACA-funded tools — like call centers, document imaging, and electronic data matching — to improve and streamline both Medicaid and SNAP enrollment systems. Consolidating the two registration processes has been particularly fruitful. New Mexico, for example, generated a 5 percent increase in participation in just 14 months after launching a Web-based sign-up system that lets enrollees apply for multiple programs in a single session. Overall, 632,000 people will be more food secure because of the ACA.

Ensuring that all financially insecure families can access SNAP benefits will go a long way towards enabling families to enjoy abundant Thanksgivings while alleviating the daily fear of going hungry that they experience during the rest of the year.

So, whether it’s helping struggling families, advancing public health, or stimulating the economy, there is an awful lot to be thankful for when it comes to SNAP.

Trevor Brown contributed to this blog post. 


Task Force to Consider SNAP Distribution Schedule

GroceriesOn the last night of the legislative session, the Illinois General Assembly approved House Joint Resolution (HJR) 43, as amended, establishing a task force to recommend possible changes in Illinois’s monthly schedule for distributing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. 

The monthly SNAP distribution schedule affects the vital interests of the two million Illinois residents who rely on SNAP benefits to avoid hunger, especially the 60,000 young children, older adults, people with disabilities, working families and others who enroll or re-enroll in the program each month.

Here is why the SNAP distribution schedule is so important. When a SNAP application is approved, the household receives a partial month’s issuance that covers their needs for the rest of the month in which they applied. They then receive their first full monthly issuance in the following month. If that issuance occurs late in the month, they must “stretch” their initial partial-month issuance for a far longer period than it is intended to cover.

Here is an example:

  • The maximum monthly SNAP allotment for a household of three is $526. More than 1/3 of SNAP households are poor enough to receive the maximum allotment.
  • Assume a household of three that is eligible for the maximum allotment applies on April 11, is approved on April 16 (standard processing time), and receives their SNAP benefits loaded on their LINK EBT card on April 18 (standard). On April 18, the household would receive $351, a partial-month issuance intended to cover them for the 20 days from the date they applied (April 11) through the end of the month (April 30). This $351 is 2/3 of the household's full monthly allotment of $526.
  • If the issuance of SNAP benefits were distributed evenly across the month, and this household’s regular issuance day was the 27nd of the month, it would not receive its next issuance until May 27.
  • The household would have to “stretch” the $351 it received on April 18 for 40 days, until May 27.
  • The household needs twice as much, $700, over 40 days to avoid experiencing hunger.

Spreading SNAP issuances across the month would cause households to experience hunger not only during their first month on SNAP but also each time they leave and later re-enroll in the program. This is a common occurrence for working families whose income and eligibility for the program fluctuates. Over 70 percent of SNAP recipients are in working families with children.

To avoid causing SNAP recipients to experience hunger by having a long waiting period between when they receive their initial partial-month issuance and when they receive their first full issuance, IDHS has begun to distribute all SNAP benefits within the first ten days of the month.

Food retailers, represented by the Illinois Retail Merchants Association (IRMA), would prefer that the issuance of SNAP benefits be spread out more evenly across the month. According to IRMA, an even distribution of benefits throughout the month is needed to avoid a rush on stores at the start of the month and empty stores later in the month. They claim that this creates staffing and customer service problems and prevents them from stocking adequate supplies of fresh fruit and vegetables, thus harming SNAP participants as well as retailers.

The retailers’ argument is premised on the assumption that SNAP participants spend all of their benefits on the day they receive them. This assumption is refuted by the data covering all $250 million in SNAP issuances and usage during April 2013. These data show that, although 70 percent of SNAP benefits were issued during the first ten days of the month, actual usage is fairly even throughout the month, with only a small drop-off in the last 10 days of the month.

When the Illinois Department of Human Services stood by its decision to issue all SNAP benefits during the first 10 days of the month, IRMA decided to seek a legislative solution. It drafted legislation that was never filed that would have mandated the state spread out its issuance of SNAP benefits across the month. IRMA’s legislation gave no consideration to how such a schedule would inflict hunger on SNAP participants.

As the end of the legislative session loomed and the prospects for passage of the legislation IRMA had drafted but never filed dimmed, IRMA decided instead to introduce HJR 43, which again focused solely on the retailers’ interest in having the distribution of SNAP benefits spread more evenly throughout the month and gave no consideration to how this would affect the vital interest of SNAP participants in avoiding hunger.

The Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law and Heartland Alliance for Human Needs and Human Rights co-led successful advocacy to amend the resolution to ensure that the task force also considers the interests of SNAP participants in avoiding hunger when recommending a new SNAP distribution schedule. The amended resolution that passed the House and Senate requires that the task force's recommendations not increase hunger; adds "hunger" to the task force's name; frames the task force in the context of the SNAP program; and adds the Greater Chicago Food Depository as a member of the task force. 

In addition to a representative from the Shriver Center, Governor Quinn has appointed representatives from Heartland Alliance, the Greater Chicago Food Depository, the Illinois Retail Merchants Associations, the Illinois Food Retailers Association, and the Illinois Department of Human Services to the task force. Each of the four legislative leaders has also appointed one member of the task force. The task force is being chaired by Rep. Sara Feigenholtz and Sen. Jacqueline Collins, both sponsors of HJR 43, and includes Rep. Norrine Hammond and Sen. Syverson. The task force’s report is due by October 1, which will allow for legislative action during the two-week fall veto session that begins on October 22.

Several organizations contributed to the successful advocacy to amend HJR 43 to require that the task force consider the interests of SNAP participants in avoiding hunger and not solely the interests of food retailers. These organizations include the Shriver Center, Heartland Alliance, Bread for the World, the Greater Chicago Food Depository, the Illinois Hunger Coalition, Illinois Action for Children, and the Ounce of Prevention Fund. In the months ahead, anti-hunger, anti-poverty and low-income children’s advocates need to remain vigilant to ensure that, as the task force’s charge provides, any plan to change the distribution schedule for SNAP benefits must do so without increasing hunger. 


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. 

Clearinghouse Review Announces Its 2012 Special Issue Topic: Hunger and Food Insecurity

Knife and forkDuring the recent economic downturn, many American families became food insecure, meaning they had limited or uncertain access to enough nutritious food for an active, healthy life. In 2010, 40.3 million people received monthly benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps), up from 33.7 million people in 2009 and more than double the number of food stamp recipients in 2002. Participation in school meal programs also increased, and 32 million children now participate in school meal programs each day. Food insecurity is especially troublesome among older adults, given the population’s particular health and medical needs. From 2001 to 2009, the number of older Americans at risk of hunger increased by 79 percent.

The increasing prevalence of food insecurity in America has prompted Clearinghouse Review: Journal of Poverty Law and Policy to choose it as its 2012 special issue topic. Every year, the Review devotes one issue to exploration of a single topic; last year’s special issue focused on applying a human rights lens to poverty law practice, and the 2010 special issue discussed climate change and green jobs.

Helping low-income people increase their access to food through benefits programs such as SNAP, the Women, Infants, and Children Program (WIC), and the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACPF) has long been a traditional strength of the legal services community, and Clearinghouse Review has published many articles on these topics. Recently, the Review has published articles exploring whether states should require identification requirements for SNAP participants, the use of SNAP benefits at fast-food chains, and low-income college students’ eligibility for SNAP benefits.

However, the nature of food insecurity is evolving, as are the federal and state programs that address the problem. Assisting clients with SNAP benefits has become a moving target for legal services attorneys, who are trying to help more clients get benefits in the face of state budget cutbacks that cause delays in processing times and reduce compliance with federal legal deadlines. Children, the elderly, immigrants, and people living with disabilities all face additional challenges when trying to access nutritious food through SNAP and other programs.

As the number of food-insecure Americans grows, it will not be enough for only those legal services attorneys specializing in benefits to confront the hunger problem. To end hunger in America, advocates from many disciplines—health, education, economic development, and housing, to name a few—will need to focus on food. Moreover, it will not be sufficient for these advocates to understand the changing landscape of federal and state benefit programs. To understand why so many communities are unable to secure nutritious food for all of their members, advocates need to take a close look at the communities themselves. Many low-income communities have become “food deserts” with limited access to nutritious foods. These neighborhoods also contain few safe spaces for physical activity, which has contributed to a dramatic rise in obesity over the past decade. Low-income families are also affected by food’s production, distribution, and consumption, both as workers and consumers.

The good news is that, across the country, advocates and community leaders are developing new approaches to food insecurity. Not only are they using traditional antipoverty programs in new ways, they are helping low-income people access nutritious food through farmers’ markets, community gardens, and fresh food financing initiatives. Lawyers are dismantling state-level barriers to national food programs, helping communities rezone to have more green space, incorporating the concept of a “human right to food” into their arguments, and ensuring that, as the delivery of benefits is modernized through the use of new technologies, vulnerable clients’ ability to access benefits is not compromised.. Food banks are collaborating with unexpected partners to make sure that nutritious food does not spoil before it reaches consumers. In its 2012 special issue, Clearinghouse Review hopes to showcase dynamic and diverse solutions to food insecurity from across the country so that advocates can share their expertise with one another and design new solutions to food insecurity.

If you are interested in learning more about Clearinghouse Review’s 2012 special issue, please contact Staff Attorney-Legal Editor Michele Host. The editorial team welcomes suggestions regarding topics and authors. If you or your organization is interested in sponsoring the 2012 special issue, contact Brendan Short.


Pennsylvania Should Drop Food Stamp Asset Limit

Families must be able to save money in order to achieve self-sufficiency and prosper. Unfortunately, the federal government often forgets this common-sense principal. 

Many public benefits programs—like cash welfare or Medicaid—limit eligibility to those with few or no assets. If a family has assets over the state’s limit, it must “spend down” longer term savings in order to receive what is often short-term public assistance. These asset limits are a relic of entitlement policies that no longer exist, since cash welfare programs now focus on quickly moving families to self-sufficiency rather than allowing them to receive benefits indefinitely. In other words, although personal savings and assets are precisely the kind of resources that allow families to move off—and stay off—public benefit programs, asset limits actually discourage anyone receiving public benefits from saving for the future.

States have full discretion in setting or eliminating asset limits for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), Medicaid, and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). They also have some flexibility to address asset limits for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps). Several states have eliminated asset limits in TANF, Medicaid and SCHIP, and 38 states have eliminated asset tests in SNAP.

Pennsylvania is one of these states. In 2008, when the recession hit and unemployment soared, it dropped asset limits in its SNAP program. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania’s Department of Public Works (DPW) recently announced that it wants to reinstate these tests. Under the proposal, individuals under 60 could have no more than $2,000 in assets, and individuals over 60 could have no more than $3,250, not including retirement accounts and homes. This is devastating news for the state’s 850,000 families currently receiving SNAP benefits. It would also be a blow to Pennsylvania’s economy since research shows that every $1 in SNAP benefits generates $1.73 in economic activity.

This proposed policy reversal is highly unusual because the trend among states has been to eliminate asset tests. So what is different about Pennsylvania? According to Anne Bale, a spokesperson for the DPW, Pennsylvania residents have complained about fraud and abuse in the SNAP program. DPW’s hope is that reinstituting asset limits would eliminate this waste, without requiring the state to spend money on fraud detection and prosecution. However, the state recently won an award for running the most efficient state SNAP program and has one of the lowest rates of SNAP fraud in the nation: 1/10 of 1%. Moreover, the state would not really save any money since it’s likely that more caseworkers would need to be hired and all caseworkers would need to receive training on the new limits and how to apply them. Added to the cost of software to computers, asset limits and the extra workload of understaffed offices, any cost savings would be slim. It would be a no-win situation: both bad for the state’s economy and bad for people trying to escape poverty’s cycle.

This proposed policy sends entirely the wrong message: Do not pull yourself up out of poverty; rather remain in the cycle of poverty, dependent on government benefits. It’s simply bad public policy to require people to spend all their assets in order to ensure a meal on the table then tell them that they need to save and become self-sufficient!

It time to do away with asset limits once and for all. Grab your fork and tell Pennsylvania and other states to stop sticking it public benefit recipients.


Banks Make Huge Profits On Food Stamps

SNAP benefits cardOver the past 20 years, electronic deposit and electronic benefit transfers (EBT) have replaced paper checks for the delivery of public assistance benefits. EBT systems deliver government benefits by allowing recipients to use a plastic card to access their benefits through ATMs and point of sale (POS) devices located in select retail outlets.

One reason that EBT systems have become so popular is that states have found that they can save millions of dollars by "outsourcing" the provision of these benefits to big financial firms. In fact, JP Morgan is the largest processor of food stamp benefits in the United States.

JP Morgan has contracted to provide food stamp debit cards in 26 states and the District of Columbia. JP Morgan is paid for each case that it handles, so that means that the more Americans that go on food stamps, the more profits JP Morgan makes. Considering the fact that the number of Americans on food stamps has exploded from 26 million in 2007 to 43 million today, one can only imagine how much JP Morgan's profits in this area have soared.

J.P. Morgan also provides unemployment insurance benefit debit cards in seven states which is ironic since it, along with other big Wall Street banks, was a major contributor to the financial collapse that lead to tens of thousands of Americans becoming unemployed. 

It seems grossly unjust that the very Wall Street financial institutions that caused the recession and received bailouts from the U.S. government and tax dollars during the financial crisis are now making money off the recession and their victims again – low income families and taxpayers. Moreover, one of the programs that was on the chopping block during the debt debate was the food stamp program. In other words, Congress was prepared to cut food assistance to families, but did not even bother examining whether big banks’ profits from administering food stamp program benefits should be cut.

As part of the recent Wall Street reform, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) was created by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. The CFPB, which became operational on July 21st, is now the sole federal agency focused on consumer protections. Among its responsibilities is supervision and enforcement with respect to the laws over providers of consumer financial products and services. As such, one of its early efforts should be to review the practice of continuing to allow financial institutions to profit off the very consumers they helped to defraud and deplete their assets in the first place.

To learn more about the CFPB visit its website.

To learn more about issues surrounding the electronic payment of public benefits you can view the Shriver Center’s webinar, The Next Frontier: in Public Assistance: Electronic Payment Cards.


House Proposal Would Vastly Increase Hunger in America

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly called Food Stamps) is one of the nation’s most important anti-hunger and anti-poverty programs and helps 44 million Americans buy food, including 1.8 million in Illinois. In 2009, SNAP effectively lifted 4.6 million Americans out of poverty. Today, SNAP is threatened by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s long-term budget plan, which passed the House on April 15, and other potential structural changes in government spending such as a global spending cap.

What is SNAP?
Child choosing groceriesFood stamps have existed in one form or another since the latter years of the Great Depression, helping Americans avoid hunger and malnutrition. SNAP also helps American farmers and the 200,000 retailers who accept the benefits. The federal government pays for all SNAP benefits, and splits the cost of administering the program with the states.

SNAP is a critical part of the safety-net for American families. Three-quarters of all benefits go to households with children, and nearly one-third go to households where a family member is elderly (over 60) or disabled. SNAP serves American families whose income is less than 130% of the federal poverty line ($1,579 per month for a family of two or $2,389 for a family of four). This eligibility level is set by Congress.

SNAP benefits are keyed to the USDA Thrifty Food Plan, which is the Department of Agriculture’s estimate of the cost of a bare-bones, nutritionally adequate diet. The maximum benefits (including the small temporary increase provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) is currently $367 for a family of two or $668 for a family of four; that amount goes to families with no disposable income after certain necessities are deducted from their income. But the average person receives just $4.46 a day. Perhaps not surprisingly, food pantries report more need towards the end of the month, when people have exhausted their SNAP benefits and still need to eat.

Ryan’s Long-Term Budget Threatens SNAP
Ryan proposes radical, unwise, and unnecessary changes to the SNAP program including the following.

  • Ryan would cut almost 20%, or $127 billion, from the SNAP program over ten years. Slashing this much from the program would require cutting off access to food for millions of Americans, or drastically reducing benefit levels.
  • Ryan would change the structure of SNAP to a “block grant” starting in 2015. Block grants cap federal expenditures for a particular program, and the federal government simply gives states a fixed amount each year without regard to the level of need.
  • Ryan would require adult recipients of SNAP to work or engage in job training. Our society should provide the most vulnerable among us adequate nutrition, even if they or their parents are unable to work.
  • Ryan would make SNAP receipt time-limited, like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Such a policy would cause hunger and malnutrition for millions of Americans, especially the elderly, after they exhausted their period of eligibility.

Cutting $127 Billion from SNAP Would Rip a Hole in the Safety Net
Slashing 20% from the SNAP program would hurt millions of Americans, including the elderly and working families. It would also hurt farmers and retailers and shift a huge financial burden onto the states. In Illinois alone, a conservative estimate of the cuts would be
$5 billion in lost support over 10 years. That is money that families could not use to buy healthy food, and money stores would not bring in, reducing employment and increasing food deserts, areas that lack access to healthy food. If the $127 billion in cuts come from solely from narrowing eligibility, at least 8 million individuals would need to be cut from the program. If the $127 billion in cuts come from a universal cut in benefits, it would be a reduction of over $30 per person per month, which adds up to more than $1,000 a year for a family of three. There isn’t much else to cut—SNAP is efficiently run and has an extremely low error rate, with over 98% of SNAP benefits going to households who are qualified for the program.

SNAP Should Remain a Federal Program
SNAP is, and should remain, a federally funded program for three main reasons. First, hunger is a national problem, and ensuring access to enough food for all Americans should be a shared commitment. Second, SNAP benefits food producers and sellers all around the country, ensuring steady national and local supplies of food. Third, if SNAP were block-granted, states would not be able to adequately respond to increases in need caused by natural disasters or recession. In 2005 after the hurricanes in the Gulf Coast, for example, SNAP provided
two million suffering families $1 billion in benefits.

Block-Granting SNAP Would Undermine Its Purpose and Is Not Necessary to Control Spending
Chairman Ryan believes that block-granting SNAP would help keep spending down. In fact, the block-grant structure is unwise and unnecessary.

First, it’s unwise because a block-grant structure would rob SNAP of the flexibility to respond to times of increased need, like natural disasters and recessions. It is a testament to the flexibility of the program that in this time of unprecedented economic challenge it has grown to a record high, with 44 million Americans receiving SNAP in January 2011. SNAP must remain a counter-cyclical program to keep families afloat in difficult times.

Second, block-granting SNAP is not necessary to keep spending in check. Chairman Ryan incorrectly asserts that SNAP costs are rising out of control. In fact, the growth of SNAP is already slowing as the recovery begins. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office predicts that SNAP expenditures will begin to fall starting in 2012. The program’s cost will return to a .3% share of GDP—the same as before the recession – by 2021. You can find state-level trends calculated by Food Research and Action Center here

In the last decade, SNAP costs have increased for four reasons. The vast majority of the rise is temporary and caused by the recession ,which has caused increase expenditure on SNAP because more people than ever qualify for help. The SNAP caseload closely tracks the number of people in poverty and the unemployment. Here in Illinois, for instance, in the last five years the unemployment rate has increased by 71% (from 5.6% in January 2006 to 9.6% in January 2011), and SNAP receipt has increased by 48% (from 1,216,433 to 1,803,223). Also, Congress and the President responded to the recession by temporarily boosting SNAP benefits by an average of $46 per household, which will expire in October of 2013. This expense is one of the best forms of stimulus in which our government has invested. A small part of the increased cost of SNAP comes from higher food costs, since the maximum SNAP amount is tied to the cost of a bare-bones nutritious diet. Finally, in the last decade we have made strides in getting qualified people who need help buying nutritious food enrolled in SNAP, but still one-third of eligible families do not receive SNAP, especially working families and the elderly. All this demonstrates that the biggest causes of the rise in the cost of SNAP have been the rise in the number of people who qualify for SNAP, and increase in benefits, both of which are temporary.

Adding a Time-Limit and Work Requirement to SNAP Are Impractical and Naive
The House doesn’t really think that people will stop needing to eat, do they? For many adults around the nation, SNAP is literally the only government support to which they are entitled that prevents their utter destitution and starvation.

Ryan’s proposal to require SNAP recipients to work or do job training is unrealistic and expensive. States already have smaller-scale employment & training programs for SNAP recipients, and require able-bodied childless adults to work or engage in training. But expanding this program to all recipients would swamp already-strapped states, driving up administrative costs with additional personnel and infrastructure. Paradoxically, elsewhere in Ryan’s plan he guts our nation’s investments in job training! Even the recently passed FY 2011 continuing resolution cut $1billion from job training and education.

Protecting SNAP’s Ability to Prevent Hunger in Challenging Times is a Moral Imperative
SNAP literally saves lives. SNAP helps families improve their nutrition, because
90% of SNAP benefits go to fruits and vegetables, grain products, meats, or dairy products, and the program includes a strong nutrition education component. Research shows that the national expansion of SNAP (Food Stamps) in the 1960s reduced infant mortality. That’s why prominent Americans, including conservatives like Bob Dole, support SNAP. Hunger and malnutrition in America was real—if you don’t remember it, watch this moving video. Today, tens of millions of Americans—one in five –struggle to buy food for their families.

Our lawmakers face a stark challenge—a growing structural deficit at a time of unprecedented need. But SNAP is not a part of the structural problem. For decades now our nation has embraced this core belief—that in a land so prosperous and fortunate as America, no adult, child, or elder should go hungry. Let us not turn our back on this most fundamental obligation.


Illinois House Committee Approves Bill That Would Prevent One Million Illinoisans from Using Food Stamps

The Illinois House Human Services Committee today approved House Bill 161, sponsored by Rep. Chapin Rose. The bill would require the Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS) to request a federal waiver so that it could restrict use of LINK cards -- the electronic benefits cards on which food stamps are delivered -- to the head of household, who would have their photo included on the card. Other members of the household, including the head of household's spouse, children, parents, and other relatives living in the household, would not be able to go to the store and use the card.
There are currently 1.8 million people in Illinois receiving food stamps, an all-time high. Many have never received food stamps before but have been forced on to the rolls by the Great Recession and jobless recovery. Those 1.8 million people live in 850,000 discrete households and, if the waiver that the bill requires IDHS to seek is approved and implemented, only the 850,000 heads of household would be permitted to use the LINK card.
The bill also requires IDHS to estimate the cost of implementing the waiver, i.e., the cost of installing photographic equipment in its local offices, the staff time that would be devoted to shooting, processing and delivering the pictures to the private company that issues the LINK cards, and the amount that that company, the Northrup-Grumman Corporation, would charge to re-issue 850,000 LINK cards with photos on them. Rep. Greg Harris, chairman of the Human Services Committee, has formally requested that IDHS estimate the fiscal impact of the bill before it proceeds to consideration by the full House of Representatives.
IDHS was neutral on this bill, meaning that it did not take a position for or against the bill.
The Committee voted along partisan lines on the bill, with all Republicans voting in favor of the bill and all Democrats voting against the bill with the exception of Rep. Thomas Holbrook (D-Belleville), who substituted for another member of the Committee just before the vote on the bill and did not hear either the testimony on the bill or the list of dozens of organizations opposed to the bill.
Contact Dan Lesser for more information.

Household Food Insecurity Growing in the U.S.

The USDA recently released its annual report for 2008 on food insecurity in the United States. As expected in this time of recession, food insecurity significantly increased, rising from 11.1% (13 million households) in 2007 to 14.6% (17 million households) in 2008, the highest levels since the study began in 1995. Food insecure households are defined as those who, at some time during the year, had difficulty providing sufficient food for all household members due to lack of resources. One-third of these households experienced very low food security, an episode in which food intake of some household members was reduced or eating patterns were disrupted.

Access to adequate nutrition affects many aspects of a child’s life, especially their learning and future health. As the nation focuses on the rising cost of health care, it is important to recognize that a large portion of every health care dollar is spent on preventable diseases, many of which are closely linked to nutrition. President Obama pointed out the importance of this issue to our nation’s strength: “Our children’s ability to grow, learn, and meet their full potential – and therefore our future competitiveness as a nation – depends on regular access to healthy meals.”


Fortunately, several programs exist to fight hunger in the United States. They range from the National School Lunch Program to Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps). By expanding these programs, increasing access to them, and reducing associated administrative burdens, we can make use of this existing framework and truly fight hunger. 


SNAP is a massive program that reaches all ages and many working families (eligibility extends up to 130% of the Federal Poverty Level, or just under $24,000 per year for a family of 3). Utilization of this program is skyrocketing across the country, having increased by more than 37% in the past two years. In fact, a new study predicts that nearly half of all children in the country (and a shocking 90% of African American children) will receive SNAP benefits at some point during their childhood.

While the federal government fully funds the benefits in programs like SNAP, states are largely responsible for the administration. And, in light of state budget crises, the front-line workers administering these programs are not getting the support they need to deal with increasing demand. This leaves needy families without benefits, and leaves millions of dollars in Washington that could be funneled into local economies. 


President Obama has declared a goal of ending childhood hunger by 2015. While it is understandable that the prevalence of food insecurity rises during a severe recession, the trend does not need to continue. We must commit to ensuring that everyone in this wealthy nation can meet their most basic needs and access an adequate diet. Improving access to our existing food and nutrition programs in a vital first step, and can go a long way toward achieving the President’s goal.

The Law of Unintended Consequences

Most people rejoice when they find out they are getting a raise. But for low-income people, that joy may quickly turn to frustration when they realize the modest increase in income may cause a loss of hundreds of dollars in food stamp benefits. 

People across the country faced this challenge when the $25/week increase in Unemployment Insurance contained in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the federal stimulus bill) took effect in March. For some, this modest increase in income pushed them off the “cliff” of aid programs as the extra money was more than offset by a loss in food stamp benefits.

Low-income families face similar challenges each day, with their steps toward independence cancelled by a loss of a work support such as food stamps. Ideally, working families are phased off of aid programs, with their benefits gradually decreasing while their incomes increases. This approach rewards work and provides the support necessary for a family to sustain its success.

But, eligibility for food stamps for most families is strictly capped at 130% of the Federal Poverty Level, or $1907/month for a family of 3. As a result, a household whose gross income exceeds this amount is ineligible--regardless of how much the family actually has available to purchase food after allowable expenses for rent, utilities, and child care. For example, a family of 3 whose monthly income increases by $100, from $1850 to $1950 per month, may lose over $300 in food stamps. Rather than being rewarded for its accomplishment, the family is left less financially secure.

Fortunately, states have the option of raising this cap, bringing more federally funded food stamps to needy families and their communities. Through a policy maneuver known as “categorical eligibility,” the “cliff” can be reduced so that families are eased off of assistance as their earnings increase. Such a policy reduces the number of families who earn too much to receive assistance but not enough to survive. By raising the gross income limit for food stamps, a state can prevent families from being penalized for their successes.