Editor's note: This post originally appeared on New America's In the Tank blog. Our managing editor, Fuzz Hogan, spoke with Aleta Sprague of the Asset Building Program and Clare McCann, with the Education Policy Program, about legislative developments affecting the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, often known as food stamps).
As the Farm Bill's fate lies in a swirl of confusion and acrimony on Capitol Hill, we asked two New America experts to assess the impact of the House move to separate SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance) from the bill. Beyond all the coverage of the legislative wins and losses, the way the bill was put together could have far-ranging impact, on our economy and our schools, unless, of course, promises to take up SNAP in future legislation fund it to present levels.
Q 1 – Aleta, what does leaving SNAP out of the farm bill mean for the program?
Aleta: The House’s decision to leave SNAP out of the Farm Bill entirely sends a clear message to families in poverty: they are not Congress’ priority. It’s worth noting that of the 23 million families currently participating in SNAP, 76% include a child or elderly or disabled family member. While benefits will continue at their current levels for now, leaving SNAP out of the bill paves the way for even deeper cuts than the $20.5 billion the House proposed earlier this summer.
Q2 – Clare, how do cuts in SNAP impact education?
Clare: Almost half of SNAP recipients are children. They lack access to adequate amounts of food, and possible cuts to the program come at a time in their lives when they are extremely vulnerable to the health, cognitive, and even academic impacts of hunger. Research has demonstrated that children without adequate access to food also struggle in school. As an adult, I have a hard time paying attention when my stomach is growling. Imagine what it’s like for a child who is having hunger pains. School lunch programs supplement the food stamp program, but they haven’t resolved child hunger in the U.S. The SNAP program is a critical one, and its continued authorization is of paramount importance to children’s academic and social-emotional success.
Q3 – Aleta, practically, for a family presently receiving SNAP, what does this move mean, and what's likely to happen to them if the proposed cuts take effect?
Aleta: The families most likely to be hurt by the cuts the House has proposed are working families with kids. In over 60% of SNAP households with children, at least one family member has a job. Under the House plan, around two million families with high expenses, but gross incomes slightly above the poverty line, would lose eligibility. Families would also be cut from assistance if they had a dollar more than $2000 in savings. At the same time, 210,000 kids would lose school lunch, because their eligibility for free lunch is linked to their SNAP eligibility. SNAP benefits are already modest (on average, $412 per month for a family of three), and research shows that when money gets tight, families cut back on food first. In short, more kids would lose their one guaranteed meal a day, more parents would skip meals to feed their children, and all families receiving SNAP would be punished for setting aside enough money to cope with an emergency.
Q4 – Clare, what have studies shown about the impacts of economic struggle (both personally and in the community) on education? As you suggest, hungry kids have a harder time learning, but is it also true that when kids see signs of economic decay around them, they start to struggle even more?
Clare: There is evidence that low-income children struggle more in school than their middle- and high-income peers. Socioeconomic status is a predictor in many cases of later academic success, including third-grade reading scores – a measure predictive of whether a student is more likely to drop out of high school. But education alone cannot guarantee a child’s success, especially if other factors in a child’s life, like safe home environments and hunger, are failing him. With a more supportive environment and better health and learning opportunities, children can develop skills to help them overcome their challenging circumstances, both in and out of the classroom.
Q5 – Both, you've got one elevator ride with Speaker Boehner, make your case.
Clare: The federal government spends nearly $80 billion each year on elementary and secondary education programs, and a quarter of that on nutrition programs. Hunger is an essential part of the education equation, a fact we’ve proven time and time again, through research and in classrooms every day. Child poverty rates have been especially high over the last several years. If we want kids to start school every morning ready for their teachers to teach them, and if we want our education dollars wisely spent, we need to make sure their basic needs are met. We can’t expect to raise productive citizens from children who spend their weekends hungry.
Aleta: All families want to be able to provide a better life for their children and move up the economic ladder. Saving for the future is a key part of this equation. Cutting SNAP by banning families from saving is a barrier to self-sufficiency that will make it more difficult for these families to move off of public assistance for good. Furthermore, imposing a limit on savings is a waste of government resources: it increases red tape and reduces the efficiency of state agencies. Our safety net should serve as a springboard to financial security, rather than trapping families in poverty.