Changes are Underway and Ahead for SNAP, the Most Important Anti-Hunger Program in America
By Sarah Mancoll, SPSSI Policy Director
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—formerly known as Food Stamps—is a major part of the U.S. social safety net. Pioneered in the 1930s in response to high unemployment and food surpluses, the program was codified with the Food Stamp Act of 1964 and served as a major pillar of President Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” Today, the program is considered by many to be the nation’s most important anti-hunger program; it reaches 42 million people nationwide, including more than 15% of the population in some of the poorest states.
In order to be eligible for SNAP, a household must meet several conditions, including that the household’s net income falls at or below the poverty line (e.g., $2,050/month for a household of four). Monthly allotments are based on income and household size, and are determined using a formula that assumes 30% of a household’s income goes toward food (e.g., a family of four living at the poverty line would receive $640/month).
SNAP also “does more than combat hunger,” according to a brief issued by the Urban Institute. “It is an antipoverty program, a work support, a promoter of health and nutrition, and an automatic stabilizer in recessions—filling in the gaps that other safety net programs leave behind.” Moreover, “SNAP is the only program not restricted to certain categories of poor households, making it the only program nondisabled, nonelderly, childless adults can count on.” In other words, SNAP is the safety net that supports people who fall through all of the other safety nets.
White House Calls for Major Changes to SNAP
This past February, the White House issued a Budget Request to Congress that alarmed many anti-hunger and anti-poverty advocates, in addition to many food policy analysts. As written in the document:
“The Budget proposes a bold new approach to nutrition assistance that combines traditional Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits with 100-percent American grown foods provided directly to households and focuses administrative reforms on outcome-based employment strategies. In addition, the Budget expands on previous proposals to strengthen expectations for work among able-bodied adults, preserve benefits for those most in need, promote efficiency in State operations, and improve program integrity. Combined, these reforms maintain the Administration’s commitment to ensuring Americans in need of assistance have access to a nutritious diet while significantly reducing the cost to taxpayers.” (p. 24)
Upon reading the Budget, advocates and policy analysts had many questions. How would foods be “provided directly to households,” and wouldn’t such a system be the opposite of efficient for both states and households? What is meant by “outcome-based employment strategies” and how would such a focus affect the many SNAP beneficiaries who are already employed or cannot work because of age or disability? Will “significantly reducing the cost to taxpayers,” entail narrowing eligibility requirements such that fewer households receive assistance, and if so, will we be turning people away who are also “those most in need?”
The title of a recent opinion piece in The Conversation summed up these and other concerns: “Trump’s push for self-sufficiency misses the point of safety net programs.”
Major Changes to SNAP Through Legislation Are Less Certain
On April 10, 2018, the President signed an executive order intended to force low-income recipients of means-tested social safety net programs into the workforce in order to maintain their benefits. All cabinet departments now have 90 days to draft a list of recommended regulatory and policy changes. While the executive order does not name specific programs, SNAP is undoubtedly one of the programs that the White House has in mind for regulatory and policy changes.
Just a few days later, on April 13, 2018, House Committee on Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway (R-TX) released a draft reauthorization of the “Farm Bill,”—the omnibus, multi-year law that governs an array of agricultural and food programs, including SNAP. The bill would overhaul SNAP by requiring more stringent work requirements for 5-7 million program recipients. As a result of this proposed change in addition to other proposed changes, the committee anticipates that about 1 million people will leave SNAP over the next decade.
Stakeholders on the left have been very critical of the bill. According to a piece issued by the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, the extra funding authorized in the bill would only provide states with $28 per person per month to assist SNAP recipients who need a job-training or work program slot in order to continue receiving benefits. They write:
“The House majority’s bill isn’t setting states up for job training success; rather, it is saddling states with a massively underfunded mandate. Such an underfunded obligation provides a perverse financial incentive to states, some of which could seek to kick families off of the program rather than fulfilling their costly new obligation. Funding for job training, then, would come at the expense of helping families put food on the table, putting a particularly unfair burden on families in the wake of a massive tax cut that primarily benefits millionaires and corporations.”
Democrats are vowing to fight Conaway’s bill, with House Committee on Agriculture Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D-MN) arguing that proposed changes to SNAP would increase food insecurity and hardship. Moreover, Senate Agriculture Committee leaders are saying that they will not make major changes to SNAP, which suggests that reauthorization of the Farm Bill will not happen until an agreement on SNAP can be found.
In the meantime, it will be important to watch both the White House and Congress over the next several months because movements on either side—through regulation and/or through legislation—could spell big changes for SNAP.