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Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (Food Stamps)

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – formerly known as food stamps – acts as the nation’s frontline safety net against hunger.  Its goal is to alleviate hunger and malnutrition by permitting low-income households to obtain a more nutritious diet. SNAP provides a monthly benefit amount to eligible low-income families that can be used to purchase food. Eligibility for SNAP is based on household income and assets, and because this is a federal entitlement program, all those who qualify for benefits should receive them. Overall, SNAP is an impactful and effective program; in 2012, it succeeded in lifting nearly 5 million above the poverty line, including about 2.2 million children. SNAP is also one of the most efficient government programs, with more than 99 percent of benefits being issued to eligible households.

In January 2014, Farm Bill negotiators released their final Farm Bill proposal, which included $8.6 billion in cuts to SNAP. These cuts mainly impact “Heat and Eat” programs in 15 states, which use heating assistance to help increase SNAP benefits. The cut would deter this practice, resulting in 850,000 households losing an average of $90 per month in SNAP benefits. The House passed the bill 251-166 on January 29 and the Senate passed it 68-32 on February 4. President Obama signed it into law on February 7. RESULTS opposed the bill because of the cuts to SNAP but we are also very grateful to our volunteers for their hard work in protecting SNAP from the much deeper cuts proposed by the House. Without the advocacy of RESULTS volunteers and many others, the damage to SNAP would have been a whole lot worse.

Unfortunately, some in Congress are pushing for deeper cuts to SNAP and structural changes that would undermine the program. The House Republican budget proposal includes a proposed $135 billion reduction - almost 18% - to the program over ten years, with real impact on low-income individuals' ability to feed themselves and their families. These cuts would achieved by some combination of “block granting” the program, reducing the size of the benefits, and restricting the eligibility for the program. If turned into a block grant, SNAP would be less able to respond during economic downturns and states would be able to move funds from SNAP to other programs during budget shortfalls.

In September 2013, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released its annual report about food security in the U.S. In 2012, 14.5 percent of households were food insecure at least some time during the year, including 5.7 percent with very low food security—meaning that the food intake of one or more household members was reduced and their eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year because the household lacked money and other resources for food. The prevalence rate of very low food security increased from 5.4 percent in 2010, returning to the level observed in 2008 and 2009. SNAP is a key program in responding to that need, especially in times of economic downturn. According to the USDA's profile of SNAP, April 2012, 47 percent of all participants are children, and 71 percent of all SNAP benefits go to households with children.  In addition, about 16 percent of all households include an elderly member, and about 20 percent include a disabled member.

Broadening participation in SNAP and ensuring that benefits are adequate are vital to ending hunger.While private charities also play an important part of meeting need, it's important to remember that the food provided by all food banks and food pantries combined is equivalent to just 6 percent of the food federal nutrition programs provide - primarily through SNAP, though also through WIC, school meals, and a few other federal programs.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA, H.R.1), passed by Congress in February 2009, included $20 billion to temporarily increase SNAP benefits by 14 percent, but this increase has been cut over the past two years to fund other programs, and ended completely in November 2013. These investments in SNAP are a very effective economic stimulator; the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service (ERS) finds that each dollar of federal SNAP benefits generates $1.79 in economic activity, while Mark Zandi from Moody's Economy has estimated that figure at $1.84. In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that between 8,900 and 17,900 full time jobs are created for every $1 billion in food stamps. Unfortunately, the ARRA boost to SNAP was reduced to pay for assistance to states for Medicaid programs in August 2010 and Child Nutrition in December 2010.  SNAP is working as a critical safety net; a Center for Budget and Policy Priorities' analysis, using the the Census Bureau approved alternative calculation of poverty, found that SNAP lifted 4.9 million people out of poverty in 2012, including about 2.2 million children. SNAP also lifted 1.4 million children out of deep poverty (50% of the poverty line) in 2012, more than any other government assistance program.

Benefits, Eligibility, and Participant Profiles

According to the USDA in its FY 2012 SNAP Profile, the SNAP benefit averaged in 2012 about $133 per person a month or $1.48 per meal.  After the ARRA benefit increase expired in November 2013, the average benefit level fell to approximately $1.39 per meal.  Benefits may be used to buy only food items generally for consumption in the home; alcohol, tobacco, and non-food household items are excluded. Eligibility for SNAP is determined by household. In order to qualify, households, with a few exceptions, must have a gross income below 130 percent of the federal poverty line, and net income below the poverty line. They also cannot possess more than $2,000 in assets ($3,250 for households with an elderly member or someone with disabilities).

SNAP households have little cash income. In fiscal year 2012, according to the USDA, 82% of households receiving benefits had gross incomes below the poverty line ($23,550 for a family of four in 2012, and $11,500 for a person living alone.) About 42% percent of SNAP households had gross incomes at or below 50 percent of the poverty level. The vast majority of households receiving SNAP - 75% - included a child, senior or disabled person. Four out of five SNAP participants are not expected to work (children, elderly, or the disabled) or are working.  SNAP benefits also serve a crucial role for low-income workers and homeless persons.

Seventy-four percent of those participating in the program receive food stamps for two years or less. Half of all new recipients stay on the program no more than ten months and 57 percent end participation within one year. Participants in SNAP spend more on food than they would in the absence of the program. Providing benefits that can be spent only on food raises food expenditures more than an equal amount of cash. In addition, there is evidence that program participation can increase the availability of some nutrients in the home food supply. Recent studies have shown that the nutrient intake of low-income people differs little from higher-income people — a sharp contrast from 40 years ago.
 

SNAP at Risk in Budget Negotiations

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI-1) proposes to radically alter SNAP. As part of the proposed House FY 2015 budget, SNAP funding would be cut by $137 billion over the next ten years. This would force millions of people out of the program and/or a significant reduction in benefits, which are already low (about $1.40 per meal per person). Although Ryan did not give many details on how these cuts would be implemented, we do know that Ryan would convert SNAP into a block grant program, i.e. a fixed lump sum amount given to states. This change would allow states to adjust eligibility and benefits as they see fit while undermining the current system that is both effective in reaching those in need and cutting fraud, waste, and abuse. Cuts to SNAP would make it harder for families to pull themselves out of poverty and deep poverty. If the cuts were to come solely from eliminating eligibility for categories of currently eligible households or individuals, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimates using Congressional Budget Office data that 10 million people would need to be cut from the program each year. If the cuts were to come solely from across-the-board benefit cuts, SNAP benefits would have to be cut by an average of more than $40 per person per month beginning in 2019. With this budget plan, the risk of hunger would be substancially increased. (See CBPP's state-by-state estimated impact of this proposal.)

As deficit reduction battles continue, we are pleased that the Budget Control Act protects mandatory programs that serve low-income Americans, such as Medicaid, SNAP, and the Earned Income Tax Credit from across-the-board cuts known as "the sequester."  However, funding for discretionary programs assisting low-income Americans, such as the Supplemental Nutrtion Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), Head Start, and low-income housing programs, is vulnerable to cuts under the sequester.  The House has set appropriations levels for Fiscal Year 2015 that disproportionately make cuts in the Labor, Health, and Human Services, and Education bill (Labor-HHS) and the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development bill (T-HUD), which contain many important safety net programs.  The Senate's appropriations levels for Labor-HHS and T-HUD are somewhat more generous. We urge the Congress to protect all the safety net programs in their negotiations. We also urge them to reject structural changes to Medicaid and SNAP, such as converting the programs to block grants, which will hurt millions of vulnerable Americans. 

Program Responsiveness and Effectiveness

No other federal program except unemployment insurance responds better to changing economic conditions than SNAP. This is especially evident in both the time of the recession beginning in 2008 and in the wake of disasters when the special D-SNAP program kicks in. The amount of D-SNAP benefits issued depends on the number and magnitude of disasters during the year and requires no Congressional action. Disaster driven SNAP benefits more than doubled in 2006 due to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita on the Gulf Coast.

During the economic crisis, SNAP was able to respond and keep families out of a state of food insecurity. As mentioned above, SNAP lifted nearly 5 million people out of poverty in 2012.  Households that received SNAP benefits saw their food insecurity decrease by 5 to 10 percentage points. The recent economic crisis is proof positive of the importance of programs like SNAP. Because of its structure as a mandatory program requiring benefits be provided to all eligible participants, it was able to respond quickly and effectively when millions of people lost their jobs and income. Without this backstop, millions more American children and families would be hungry today. As the economy improves and unemployment decreases, SNAP participation will automatically decline and fall to lover levels of the GDP.

Lastly, SNAP achieved its lowest error rates on record in fiscal year 2012, even as volumes of participants grew and administrative resources were under strain. Given all the rigorous methods that have been used to minimize errors, SNAP has "one of the best records of accuracy in providing benefits only to eligible households of any government program."