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The Ladder

A Blog from New America's Asset Building Program

What’s really driving the proposed SNAP cuts?

Published:  May 9, 2012
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Yesterday, the House Agriculture Committee held a hearing about the Farm Bill that focused on some of the proposed reforms to SNAP. Notably, none of the panelists or representatives in attendance really had anything negative to say about the program. It was widely agreed that SNAP has lifted millions of Americans out of poverty, has provided a much-needed boost to the economy, and is one of the most efficient social welfare programs. Nearly 95% of federal SNAP funding goes directly to the benefits that allow families to purchase food; 93% of the benefits go to households with incomes below the poverty line; and fraud and abuse are minimal. So this all begs the question: what’s really driving the proposed SNAP cuts?

First, let’s take a look at some of what the cuts can’t be about – because it simply wouldn’t make sense:

1. It’s not about making the program sustainable.

Critics of SNAP love to say that it’s a “runaway” program, expanding rapidly and moving out of our control. In fact, this is false. The program has grown significantly over the past few years, but as Stacy Dean from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities testified yesterday, this growth is very easy to explain. First, the majority of the growth in participation is attributable to the Recession, as documented in detail by a recent CBO report. As unemployment has risen, so has SNAP participation; the program is functioning the way it was intended. Second, the Recovery Act temporarily increased SNAP benefits, which accounted for twenty percent of the program’s growth between 2007 and 2011.

Moreover, SNAP expenditures are actually expected to decline over the next decade as the economy recovers and the temporary Recovery Act benefit increase expires. In fact, the CBO predicts that by 2018, SNAP costs as a share of the economy will likely fall back to their 1995 level.

2. It’s not about SNAP’s supposed deterrence of work.

Some proponents of the SNAP cuts make the go-to argument against welfare and public benefits: the safety net is becoming a “hammock,” and recipients lack an incentive to find work when their basic needs are being taken care of by the government. This position ignores some basic facts about who gets SNAP, how the program operates, and what the budget cuts would really do.

First, children, the elderly and disabled—i.e., people who, normatively speaking, we don’t expect to fully participate in the workforce—account for 84% of SNAP recipients. Furthermore, the percentage of SNAP households that have earned income has been steadily increasing since 1990; in 2010, even as unemployment reached 9.6%, the majority of SNAP households containing an able-bodied adult were households receiving income from a job. In most states, most adults who do participate in SNAP are required to work or participate in a work training or job assistance program.

If the proposal were about encouraging more SNAP recipients to work, the House’s proposal would not cut federal funding for SNAP employment and training by 72%, at a time when unemployment rates remain above 8%.

3. It’s not about increasing program efficiency.

Again, one of the major points of agreement during yesterday’s hearing was that SNAP participation boosts the economy. Some common statistics bear repeating: for example, every $1 in SNAP benefits results in an average of $1.71 in community spending, and 97% of SNAP benefits are spent within a month of receipt. SNAP is also one of the few resources available for the long-term unemployed.

As described yesterday, one of the most significant proposals for cutting costs from SNAP is turning it into a block grant program, like TANF. This would mean that only a limited amount of funding would be available for benefits, regardless of how many people are eligible. Moreover, block granting SNAP would eliminate one of its more important features – its flexibility. More than any other safety net program, SNAP expands and contracts to respond to economic conditions and emergencies. Turning SNAP into a block grant would jeopardize its ability to serve families in times of greatest need. Furthermore, as has happened with TANF, if SNAP became a block grant program, states could use the money for a variety of purposes other than providing food benefits.

If it were about program efficiency, the proposal would not seek to eliminate broad-based categorical eligibility, a state policy option which streamlines the application process by identifying individuals who would likely be eligible for SNAP because of their receipt of a TANF-funded non-cash service. Broad-based categorical eligibility has been largely endorsed for its potential to increase administrative efficiency, which is why more than forty states have chosen the option.

So I’m left to wonder - what are the proposed cuts really about? The arguments in favor of cutting SNAP are not data-driven; these positions also evidence a lack of continuity. Like with asset tests and drug tests for welfare recipients—both of which are premised on the idea of cost savings, but in reality cost the states money and reinforce stigma—cuts to SNAP are grounded in the idea that it’s not the government’s responsibility to make sure its citizens’ most basic needs are met. Those in support of the SNAP cuts extol the virtues of communities taking care of each other instead of relying on the government to do so. And indeed, the idea of a church or a community group providing food to those in need is something we can all appreciate and feel good about. But there is no way that charity and volunteer work can meet the incredible need—and incredible hunger—that is currently facing so many Americans following one of the worst economic downturns in history. As the director of the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma testified yesterday:

Any cuts to such vital nutrition assistance will increase hardship within the already struggling population served by [the Food Bank] and further inhibit our organization’s ability to keep up with the increasing need for supplemental nutrition…Without help from these programs, it will not be possible to respond to the overwhelming need we are experiencing.

Best intentions aside, government intervention and support is the only way to provide a large-scale solution to hunger.  If the proposed cuts take effect, many families currently relying on SNAP for their next meal will have few places left to turn.

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