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?
Food 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
Chairman 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.