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The Ladder

A Blog from New America's Asset Building Program

The $100,000 Question: Who are the SNAP Participants Robert Rector's Talking About?

Published:  July 16, 2012
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A recent article from Minnesota Public Radio described the consequences of curtailing the policy option that allows states to lift or eliminate their asset tests for most SNAP applicants (also known as broad-based categorical eligibility). State administrators interviewed for the article pointed out that asset tests hurt families trying to move toward self-sufficiency, particularly when they impose limits on vehicle ownership. But one passage from the article, quoting the Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector, expressed some other concerns:

"The current way the system works, you can have $100,000 sitting in the bank, and if you're unemployed, you can get food stamps. It's a total waste of money. It's like a bad joke.”

. . . [Rector] argues that food stamp applicants should have to take such a test, even if some people who need help are denied benefits."I'm sure you can find one or two, or a dozen, or a hundred very sympathetic cases like that," he said. "But you're also going to find tens of thousands of people that are now taking assistance under this program who don't really need this."

Below are just a few of the myriad reasons this is not, in fact, true:

  1. The average SNAP household has only $333 in the bank.

According to the USDA, of SNAP households with any resources in 2010, the average value of their assets was a mere $333. Many applicants have no assets whatsoever; this is something I’ve heard repeatedly in my own research interviewing state SNAP administrators. The fact is, although lifting the asset test has allowed more families to theoretically qualify, the level of assets among the applicant pool remains quite low—in part because it may not be worth the trouble for many families that have the option of turning to other resources to apply for the program (for more on that, see #3 and 4). So Robert Rector’s right that SNAP recipients can now have $100,000 in the bank; typically, though, that would require about 3000 SNAP households pooling their resources.

  1. Almost 80% of people receiving SNAP are children, elderly or disabled.

In other words, most SNAP beneficiaries are people who we do not expect to be fully participating in the labor force, and who consequently have lesser means of supporting themselves. Seniors in particular are especially vulnerable to hunger, and the risk of going hungry among people over fifty has increased by 79% in the past decade.

One senior citizen and SNAP participant submitted her story to Half in Ten’s story bank, describing the impact of SNAP and LIHEAP in helping her make ends meet: “Before these programs, I had to keep my heat down to 50 degrees all winter and my diet consisted of mostly spaghetti at dinner and cereal in the morning.” This woman’s story is hardly an anomalous “sympathetic case;” it’s representative of a reality for many seniors who are forced to choose between food and other expenses such as medicine.

  1. The rise in SNAP participation has clearly tracked the rise in unemployment and poverty during the Recession – the worst economic downturn most of us have ever known.

There’s been a lot of press recently about how the SNAP caseload has increased significantly over the past few years, and Rector’s statement that “tens of thousands” of people who don’t really need help are now accessing the program plays into the narrative that this growth is wasteful. In fact, the increase in participation signifies that SNAP is working exactly as it’s supposed to. One of SNAP’s greatest strengths is its flexibility; unlike TANF, which is restricted by its block grant structure, SNAP has the ability to be responsive to economic dips. The increase in participation does not reflect a bunch of families suddenly applying for SNAP to take advantage of slightly relaxed asset policies; it directly correlates to job losses. The average SNAP participant only stays on the program for about nine months. CBO predicts that the SNAP caseload will begin to decline in 2014, reflecting a recovering economy and declining unemployment rate.

Imposing a strict asset limit on families that are just accessing SNAP for the first time in the wake of the Recession does nothing but increase dependency on public assistance programs, by requiring participants to spend down all of their savings and “hit rock bottom” before they can access benefits. Without emergency savings to turn to, these households become far more vulnerable to economic shocks and falling into a permanent cycle of debt.

  1. 98.5% of benefits go to families with disposable income below the federal poverty line.

And many families are making much less. The USDA reports that for FY2010, the average SNAP household had a net monthly income of only $336. 43.2% of SNAP households had gross income below half of the federal poverty line—in real terms, that translates into less than $934 a month for a family of four. Meanwhile, the average monthly SNAP benefit was $287.

Thus, even in states that have chosen to lift the asset test, applicants are subject to stringent income limits, which still exceed—by a significant margin—what most participants in the program are making. The poorest households are the most likely to participate in the program; while the participation rate was around 72% of eligible households in 2009, the total percentage of all eligible benefits that were disbursed was 91%, reflecting higher levels of participation by lower-income households that would qualify for a larger benefit amount. Moreover, for every $10 in benefits distributed as a result of categorical eligibility, $9 goes to working households. So it remains unclear who these “tens of thousands of people” are who are receiving SNAP benefits but don’t really need them.

Moreover, as a Minnesota SNAP administrator is quoted in the article, "’This is a last resort…[m]ost people who apply for assistance really would not like to be applying for assistance.’" It’s true that theoretically someone who is unemployed but has significant savings could be eligible for the program in most states. Yet despite recent reforms that have made accessing SNAP a simpler process, it’s still a burden to apply and keep up with reporting requirements—a burden that likely will not be worth it to many families that have other resources to turn to. There’s also still the issue of stigma—which is worsened by statements like Rector’s that imply there are masses of SNAP recipients out there just taking advantage of the system. The mother in a family that was recently profiled in Idaho, where I previously worked on a SNAP outreach project, described the shame she felt:

Reeder knows that her family’s government assistance is deposited at exactly 4:12 a.m. on the first of the month. Using the debit card that holds their government assistance feels embarrassing at times, she said.

“I actually have my little technique I use.  I take my palm of my hand and I kind of cover the card with the palm of my hand so that you can’t see the top of it when I’m swiping it, so the person behind me in line doesn’t, they don’t see food stamps,” Reeder said.

Simply put, it’s ridiculous to imply that masses of people are receiving SNAP because it’s free, easy money. The benefits are low, the application process can be frustrating, and for many families, it’s still demoralizing to turn to government assistance. Even without an asset test in place, the vast majority of people receiving SNAP have very little income and even fewer resources. It’s important to put these facts out there because arguments like Rector’s are not isolated examples. Unfortunately, they reflect a broader perception of SNAP that is exacerbated by misleading statements from people in influential positions, and which deters people who need help from accessing it. And that’s what’s really shameful. 

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