Politics & Policy

Time for a Fresh Look at SNAP

(Dreamstime image: Oleksandr Boiko)
Congress is poised to overhaul the biggest federal food program.

Entitlement reform might be back in fashion.

The House Agriculture Committee just released a lengthy report on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as Food Stamps. The report — Past, Present, & Future of SNAP — is a comprehensive review of the federal government’s costliest food program, which has a projected budget of $82 billion in 2017. Republicans in Congress have been eyeing changes to SNAP, and President Trump may have the chance to sign the first major reforms to this program since 1996.

Under the Obama administration, participation in SNAP spiked from 26 million people in 2007 to almost 48 million people in 2013. Most of that increase was attributed to the Great Recession, but there hasn’t been a major drop in participation since then; in 2016, more than 45 million people received SNAP benefits. Committee chairman K. Michael Conaway initiated the review, which included testimony from 60 experts during the course of 16 hearings, and found “a number of ways the program is working successfully and a number of areas in need of improvement.”

The report is a good balance of accountability and compassion, no doubt gearing up for the usual “you want poor people to starve” resistance from Democrats. Opponents are already lined up not just to challenge any changes but to push for more benefits. James Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, an anti-hunger lobbying group, testified that “benefits are not adequate to get most families through the whole month . . . even though SNAP recipients use a variety of savvy shopping practices to stretch their limited food dollars, such as clipping coupons, using shopping lists, purchasing generic brands, buying in bulk quantities, and shopping at multiple stores” (just like most people).

There isn’t yet any legislation to codify the report’s findings, but there are clues of what may be considered by the next Congress and the always contentious farm bill, which oversees federal nutrition programs, in 2018. This will likely include shoring up the so-called “welfare cliff” that discourages people from finding work because they will have to forsake lucrative entitlements. Most SNAP recipients also get other forms of public aid, including SSI and free school meals, so it doesn’t make financial sense for people on the edge of independence to give those up for a low-paid job.

During testimony to the committee last year, Erik Randolph of the Illinois Policy Institute broke down some of the numbers:

A single parent in Lake County [Illinois] who earns $12 per hour brings home just over $22,000 in net pay. However, that same single parent is eligible for an array of welfare benefits [including tax credits, subsidized school lunch for their children, housing assistance and child care services]. When you add up the value of those potential benefits, it comes to an astounding $39,534, bringing the total net receivables — in terms of earned income and benefits — to $61,655.

In comparison, suppose you earn $18 per hour, bringing home about $33,000 in net pay. That is a gain of about $11,000 in earned income. However, your potential welfare benefits will drop drastically to $5,236 from $39,534, for a loss of more than $34,000. Why would any sane person voluntarily give up $34,000 in benefits to gain only $11,000?

This could help explain the near all-time-low labor-participation rate, which fell to 62.7 percent in September.

A morass of federal and state agencies that oversee 18 different food-assistance programs leads to overlap and waste, another problem the next Congress could tackle. Although SNAP is federally funded, it’s administered at the state level with little coordination between it and other public-aid offices, which sows fertile ground for fraud and misuse. Dave Yost, Ohio’s state auditor, told the committee on October 31 that “food-stamp fraud hardens the hearts of good people and deafens their ears to the sound of hunger. For those who hunger, and for those who pay the bill, we owe a greater effort toward integrity.”

A morass of federal and state agencies that oversee 18 different food-assistance programs leads to overlap and waste.

While most SNAP beneficiaries are children (68 percent), about 11 percent of recipients are so-called Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents (ABAWDs), accounting for nearly $10 billion per year in benefits. Some states still have time limit waivers for ABAWDs — allowing benefits for longer than the standard three months — issued after the recession. Congress will likely push to tighten time limits and for tougher work requirements, which Dr. Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution says are “modest . . . and do not appear to be rigorously enforced.”

The biggest fight could be over eliminating certain items from eligibility. Taxpayers now subsidize the purchase of lots of food they probably shouldn’t. According to a recent Department of Agriculture survey, soft drinks rank number one on the list of most purchased items with SNAP benefits, to the tune of nearly $360 million per year. Other items that could be on the chopping block include bag snacks (#4 on the list), candy (#11) and ice cream (#15). You can just hear the Democrats now: “Republicans want to take away popsicles from poor kids!” Food companies won’t like those plans, either.

But it’s worth a look. Not only did the number of SNAP recipients increase over the past eight years, so did Americans’ collective waistline. In 2009, eight states reported at least 30 percent of their adults were obese; in 2015, 27 states did with even higher rates among minorities and the poor. The report also addresses how to improve food access, reduce “food deserts,” and promote healthier food.

Democrats will use any proposed changes to portray Republicans as heartless money-grubbers. But with food prices at an all-time low, rising obesity and diabetes rates, and no major overhaul in a generation, SNAP reform should be on the table.

— Julie Kelly is a food-policy writer from Orland Park, Ill.

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