Whenever I give a presentation to a new group of people, I always start with a couple of questions. First, I’ll raise my hand and ask, “How many people have heard of SNAP?” Usually there are a couple of hands that go up in the air, but mostly I’m met with blank stares from the audience. “OK, now how many of you have heard of Food Stamps?” With no exceptions, everyone raises their hand.
My name is Talley – I’m one of two SNAP Outreach Coordinators for the Food Bank of Delaware. And for those of you who don’t already know, SNAP (an acronym for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) is the new name for the federal Food Stamp program.
There are a lot of connotations in that name – Food Stamps. Ask yourself, what comes to mind when you read those words? Chances are it’s not positive imagery. We’ve all heard horror stories about the culture of dependency fostered by these so-called entitlements, programs that give out government assistance on the taxpayers’ dime. Costs are rising out of control, enrollment is growing rapidly, hand outs remove the incentive to work, fraud and abuse are rampant…we hear these complaints all the time coming from the political arena. But how many of us look at these claims with a critical eye? What is really going on with SNAP? Does it help or hurt the American public? What are the true costs and benefits of this program?
To get a better picture of the current state of federal food and nutrition programs, it helps to look to the past to understand why they were implemented. The origins of the Food Stamps program stretch back to the Great Depression, when bread lines and soup kitchens were overwhelmed by poor, undernourished citizens looking for enough food to keep their families alive. The government stepped in and created a system whereby families on relief could match their food purchases with vouchers in order to make food more available to those in need. This first Food Stamp program ended with the wartime economic recovery, which generally brought Americans back into prosperity…or so the narrative goes.
In the 1960’s, however, it became clear that hunger remained an unsolved problem in the United States. Many households, especially in the poorest states and counties, were still struggling to afford enough food to put healthy, sustaining meals on the table. The Food Stamp Act of 1964 was one step in a renewed effort to end hunger in the US, and it received overwhelming support from across party lines. The program was later expanded under the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations to more closely resemble the modern Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. In the late 1970’s, the urgency of the hunger issue in the public eye started to wane as many perceived the problem to be largely solved.
Fast forward to 2013. Hunger still exists in America, and it’s getting worse due to growing income disparity. The last several decades have made the rich in this country richer than ever and the poor poorer than ever. The middle class is shrinking, with many families slipping out of financial stability and falling below the poverty line. Costs of living are disproportionately high. The costs of food in particular are growing at an alarming rate. Combine this with the fact that the most recent financial crisis has made finding gainful employment extremely difficult, and you can see that there are simply not enough jobs paying a living wage to give working families the purchasing power they need to be financially secure. What happens to a family that has to choose between paying all of their bills and buying enough food to eat three healthy meals a day? What would you do if you were in that position, or what are you doing?
The folks who designed the Food Stamp program (now SNAP) were able to foresee that economic conditions wouldn’t be static, and they were intelligent enough to make it flexible to the needs of the population by tying it to the Federal Poverty Level. In a nutshell, this means that when the economy does poorly and more households slip out of the middle class, SNAP is able to provide a safety net to at least fulfill their need for basic nutrition. As more households dip below that poverty line, the program “grows” to accommodate them. That’s where we get the misconception that the costs of SNAP are rising out of control – it was designed to function in that way. Conversely, as the economy recovers, more jobs are added to the labor market and there are less families living below that poverty level, enrollment in SNAP will decline.
Still, there is a constant stream of attacks from some policymakers that programs such as SNAP remove the incentive to work because they let people live comfortably without earned income. Here’s another acronym that you might not have heard before: ABAWD. An ABAWD is an able-bodied adult without dependents, someone who is able to work and doesn’t have to spend time taking care of children or other household members. Under SNAP, ABAWDs are only permitted to receive benefits for three months during any given three year period without working at least 20 hours per week or completing a work equivalency such as employment training or public service. This provides a major incentive for able-bodied individuals to work if they are capable of entering the workforce.
Furthermore, the vast majority of households that receive SNAP benefits contain children, seniors of retirement age or disabled individuals. Who would argue that children, seniors, or the disabled are lazy and that the money that they rely on for food should be stripped away? Shouldn’t this great society strive to provide a basic standard of living to its citizens, especially those who are particularly vulnerable or at risk of having inadequate nutrition?
As far as fraud goes, SNAP is extremely efficient. Modern information systems make it extremely difficult for applicants to defraud the system, and fraud accounts for less than 1% of the total program. Most of that fraud is perpetrated by the private business sector, by the way, not benefit recipients.
Think again about that image that you conjured in your mind around the words “Food Stamps.” Is it consistent with the portrait of a senior who has worked and paid taxes for their whole life, only to see the cost of living rise above their monthly Social Security check? What about the single working parent who was laid off from their salaried position during the recession and is now underemployed and forced to work for low hourly wages with no chance of overtime? Hopefully you can see the disconnect between the story we are typically given in the mainstream news media and the practical reality of the situation. That is exactly why the USDA, which oversees all federal Food and Nutrition programs, decided to rebrand the program as SNAP in an attempt to remove some of the stigma associated with the name.
So with all that in mind, did you know that SNAP benefits are actually going to be cut on November 1st? The cuts that will be taking in effect are actually the result of non-action, not the result of any new legislation. In 2009, Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to deal with the effects of the financial recession. ARRA included an emergency boost to SNAP as a part of the economic stimulus package. This boost was originally intended to remain in effect until SNAP’s regular annual inflation adjustments caught up to the new levels. In 2010, however, Congress accelerated the “sunset” of ARRA’s SNAP provision in order to cut money from the federal budget deficit, which means that the boost is set to be reversed at the end of October.
What does this mean for the households that receive SNAP benefits? Beginning November 1st, all households receiving SNAP benefits will see a reduction in their monthly benefit amount. Single person households will lose up to $8, households of two will lose $14, and households of three will lose $20. The minimum benefit amount will go down one dollar to $15 per month. Bear in mind that this is the first time in the program’s history that SNAP benefits have been cut across the board, a fact which is particularly harmful given the inadequacy of current benefit amounts.
So the next time you hear the words “SNAP” or “Food Stamps,” maybe you’ll have a different impression. Maybe you’ll be able to see the millions of children, seniors, or individuals living with disability that depend on the program for sustenance and nourishment, that look for these benefits to fulfill one of their most basic needs. And maybe you’ll remember that those families’ benefits have just been cut. And maybe you’ll remember that, by the time the next financial recession comes around, some of you might be counted among the seniors budgeting expenses on a fixed income or that some of your children might be the parents struggling to put food on the table for their kids.