The largest nutrition assistance program—the “first line of defense” against hunger—is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps. SNAP aims to diminish food insecurity among low-income families, reducing the extent of hunger in the United States. Households with a gross income at or below 130% of the poverty level are eligible for SNAP benefits.
A record number of people—47.7 million Americans—were enrolled in SNAP in September 2012, which constituted more than 15% of the U.S. population. Despite this large number, it only reaches about 72% of eligible people. Major reasons so many are not enrolled in SNAP include onerous paperwork requirements, inhospitable county benefits offices, a lack of well-planned outreach, especially in low-income and ethnic neighborhoods, and confusing online applications.
An annual report by USDA in early 2013 indicated that an average of 46.6 million people used SNAP during 2012, up from 26.3 million in 2007, a 77% increase. This shows the impact of the “Great Recession” on poverty and its attendant hunger, and is an indication of how SNAP is an effective form of stimulus during downturns in the economy. A Center for Budget and Policy Priorities analysis found that SNAP kept 4.7 million people out of poverty in 2011, including 2.1 million children.
Another way that SNAP is a powerful tool in our safety net is its effect on “extremely-low-income” people (those able to spend only $2.00 a day on food). A recent report (May 2013) by the National Poverty Center demonstrates that the prevalence of extreme poverty has risen sharply since 1996, particularly among those most impacted by the 1996 welfare reform. Adding SNAP benefits to household income reduced the number of extremely-low-income households with children by 48% in mid-2011.
Even as the economy has begun to revive, unemployment rates remain very high by historical standards. Mandatory safety-net programs like SNAP are very effective measures that have prevented millions from falling deeper into poverty. Even if Congress pursues long-term deficit reduction, it still has the moral responsibility to serve the common good by adequately funding programs that address critical human needs such as hunger.
Congress should be aware that most SNAP recipients who can work do so. Among SNAP households with at least one working-age, non-disabled adult, more than half work while receiving SNAP — and more than 80% worked in the year prior to or after receiving SNAP. In today’s economy of high unemployment, however, it is usually impossible for everyone seeking work to find it.
In July 2013, Congress failed to pass a Farm Bill (of which SNAP is a part), which placed many in jeopardy. Unfortunately, some in the House cited the 77% increase in the use of SNAP between 2007 and 2012 (see above) and the small benefit increase that was part of the 2009 stimulus bill as a reason to propose a series of significant cuts in the program. They should have noted that this important safety net program worked as it was intended—as the economy turned downward, those who were economically marginalized received the food security assistance they desperately needed. This surge in use is considered by economists to be temporary and is expected to shrink as a share of the GDP. Significantly, SNAP is not contributing to long-term budgetary pressures as a result of the temporary increase.
On September 19, 2013, the House approved a far-reaching overhaul of SNAP that would slash food aid to about 4 million Americans over the next few years and would shift a greater burden of taking care of hungry, poor people to state governments. The Republican-backed plan, which would have cut almost $40 billion in funding for SNAP over the next decade, differed sharply from the bipartisan Senate proposal passed in June, which would cut approximately $4 billion from SNAP over the next 10 years, by focusing largely on administrative costs.
A prime sponsor of the House legislation said the deep cuts were necessary to prevent many people from abusing the system. Major provisions included strict limits on able-bodied, childless adults aged 18 to 50 receiving SNAP benefits unless they worked more than 20 hours per week or were in a job training program. Secondly, waivers on those limits, which the vast majority of states qualified for in recent years, were reduced. An unexpected change that would have placed a new burden on the states while reducing federal funding was a restriction in the use of “categorical eligibility.” Previously, states had been able to determine a person’s eligibility for SNAP based in part on whether they qualified for other low-income benefits. By disallowing the use of “categorical eligibility,” state administrative costs would be increased and state flexibility curtailed because each person would have to be deemed eligible without reference to other low-income programs.
Passage of the House legislation meant that the House would have to enter into negotiations with the Senate over a final version of the Farm Bill, which would once again merge food aid with other agricultural policy.
The four principal negotiators of the Farm Bill – House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), ranking member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and ranking member Thad Cochran (R-Miss) failed to meet their own self-imposed deadline of reaching a framework for a conference report before the winter recess. The major sticking points were how to restructure farm subsidies and how much to cut the SNAP program. As a result, the House passed an extension of the Farm Bill until the end of January 2014 as lawmakers tried to finish work on the new five-year bill. The extension was passed amid fears that the expiration of dairy subsidies at the end of the year would cause milk prices to rise. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that the House version of the Farm Bill would deny SNAP benefits to approximately 3.8 million low-income Americans in 2014 and to an average of nearly 3 million people each year over the coming decade.
Finally, on February 4, 2014 the Senate passed the Farm Bill, based on the work of the aforementioned Conference Committee (the House had previously passed the bill) and Congress sent the bill to the President who signed it on February 7, 2014 in the home state (Michigan) of the Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman, Debbie Stabenow. The Farm Bill, which represents nearly $1 trillion in spending over the next 10 years, passed on a rare bipartisan vote, 68 to 32.
The New York Times (Feb. 4, 2014) said that anti-hunger advocates maintained that the bill would harm 850,000 American households, about 1.7 million people across 17 states who would lose an average of $90 per month in benefits because of the cuts in the food stamp program. Sheena Wright, the president of the United Way in New York, said she expects to see a surge of hungry people seeking help because the bill cuts $8.7 billion in food stamps over the decade. Senator Stabenow, on the other hand, said that the food stamp cuts affect only 4% of recipients and do not remove anyone from the program, unlike the earlier House bill. She maintains that the bill closes an important loophole that states use to increase benefits for food stamp recipients.
One way to view the cuts to SNAP is to realize that the bill cut $4.2 billion more from SNAP than the Senate approved last summer, and gave an additional $6 billion to the subsidized crop insurance program -- thus, the farmers fared far better than the poor. Meanwhile, the Washington Post editorial board called on the President to veto the Farm Bill, citing the gross inequity between its decreased benefits for the poor and what amounts to maintaining the status quo of corporate welfare for agriculture. For the 47 million people enrolled in the food assistance benefit program, the average monthly household income is just $744. This past November, when $4 billion of stimulus funding for SNAP ended, all recipients were hit with an average reduction in benefits of roughly $38 per month. Now, the new Farm Bill will add a further average cut of $90 per month for approximately 1.7 million people in 17 states. (Statistics on SNAP from the "Daily Kos" community email, Feb. 5, 2014)
The new cuts will primarily affect people enrolled in the food benefit program living in 17 states that previously gave poor people a nominal subsidy (often as little as $1) to heat their homes that would automatically qualify them for additional SNAP benefits. Because these people did not pay for heat -- it was included in their rent -- they did not require heating assistance through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). That loophole, known as "heat and eat," is now closed, since it was viewed as a weakness in program rules that Congress did not intend.
Interestingly, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) considers the "nutrition provisions" of the Farm Bill (admittedly, larger than the food stamp component) a "solid outcome" after a lengthy effort. CBPP says that while the bill, unfortunately, doesn't make progress in addressing hunger and poverty by investing new resources in SNAP or by reinvesting the SNAP savings the program generates, nevertheless, the bill includes sound reforms that will strengthen SNAP over time. Most importantly, it rejects the harsh eligibility cuts in the House-passed version of the Farm Bill and includes virtually every SNAP provision from the Senate bill designed to improve federal and state oversight and state program operations and administration.
According to CBPP, SNAP has proven itself both effective and efficient, helping 47 million people each month while achieving the lowest payment error rate in the program's history. Payments to ineligible households and overpayments to eligible households now total less than 3% of program expenditures. The Farm Bill clarifies policies in areas needing tightening (in addition to closing the loophole described above) including:
- Clarifying SNAP eligibility rules, such as by ensuring that lottery winners and affluent college students are not eligible for SNAP;
- Strengthening SNAP program integrity, such as through new measures to combat trafficking of benefits by retailers and recipients;
- Testing innovative strategies to connect SNAP participants to employment, by including a pilot project to spark state innovation accompanied by rigorous evaluation of the impact on participants' employment and earnings;
- Improving acce