2015 U.S. Poverty Laser Talk: Talking to An Aide about Protecting SNAP (Food Stamps)

Below is a sample conversation of talking with an agriculture aide about protecting the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) in the FY 2016 budget. Tailor it to your specific location and members of Congress.

Volunteer: Hello, may I speak to the aide who works on hunger or agriculture issues?

Aide: This is Jack, I’m the aide.

Volunteer: Hello Jack, my name is Jeff Olson.  I live in Bernardsville, NJ. And am a constituent of Rep. Jones. I was hoping you had a few minutes to talk about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP.

Aide: Yes I do, Mr. Olson. Please go ahead.

Volunteer: Jack, are you familiar with the SNAP, which is the new name for food stamps?

Aide: I’m familiar with the program, yes, but I’m not an expert on it.

Volunteer: Then you probably know that SNAP is the largest anti-hunger program in the U.S. Hunger is still a big problem in our country and in New Jersey. Between 2011 and 2013, over 11 percent of New Jerseyans were food insecure. That’s why SNAP is so critical. In 2014, over 46 million people – including 1 of every 10 New Jerseyans – received SNAP benefits. And it really helps. The U.S. Census reports that in 2013, SNAP lifted nearly 5 million people out of poverty around the country.

Aide: Yes, we do know that SNAP has its benefits for the people properly on the program.

Volunteer: I’m calling because I am very concerned that budget negotiators may try to impose SNAP cuts in the fiscal year 2016 budget. Considering we just passed a new Farm Bill last year, which already included cuts to SNAP, it’s frustrating to me that Congress would once again consider cutting this vital program. Is Rep. Jones aware of these risks?

Aide: The Congressman is not on the Budget Committee but he knows that in this fiscal environment, we have to keep everything on the table. You are correct that SNAP helps a lot of people but spending for the program has also skyrocketed in the last few years. We can’t afford these bigger and bigger spending programs.

Volunteer: I recognize that SNAP spending has been higher lately, but that’s by design because of the greater need caused by Great Recession. SNAP was specifically designed to respond to changes in the economy. It expands when times are bad to keep families afloat and then contract when things get better. In fact, SNAP spending has started to go down because the economy is showing improvement. If that continues, SNAP spending will continue to drop over the next decade.

Aide: But with all those people now getting SNAP, there’s the risk of dependency. Why work hard to find a job if the state will take care of you?

Volunteer: First, in New Jersey, 70 percent of SNAP recipients are children, the elderly, or the disabled, so they can’t work. That’s the same for the rest of the country. Second, 45 percent of people on SNAP are in families who already work. Third, do you know how much SNAP benefits are?

Aide: Not off the top of my head.

Volunteer: The average person in New Jersey gets $1.34 per meal. That translates into $276 per month for the average household in 2013. A full-time minimum wage job pays four times that; I think you’d be hard pressed to find lots of people choosing SNAP over a job. Plus, people on SNAP are on it for an average of only 8-10 months. They go on when things are tight, and then go off when they get back on their feet.  That is exactly what we what we want; A program that people use only when they need it.

Aide: Yes, but how do we know these people really need it. We can’t have just anybody getting SNAP. SNAP has a fraud problem.

Volunteer: I strongly disagree with your there. The fraud rate for SNAP in only one percent. 99 percent of SNAP benefits go to eligible households. That’s not something we should demonize; it’s something we should celebrate. If SNAP were a corporate program, people would be holding it up as a model of efficiency. The truth is that despite all the rhetoric we hear on TV and the internet, SNAP works, and we need to make sure it keeps working.

Aide: So Mr. Olson, what exactly are you wanting?

Volunteer: I would like for him to weigh in with Budget Committee members and urge them to leave SNAP cuts or efforts to make it into a block grant to states out of the Budget Resolution. Specifically, urge them not to assign budget cuts to the Agriculture Committee, which would end up as cuts to SNAP. Will you ask him to do that?

Aide: I will certainly tell him what we’ve discussed and see what he says. I cannot promise he’ll talk to them. He has some serious concerns about SNAP, which I’ve expressed in our conversation.

Volunteer: That’s a start, Jack. I appreciate it. May I follow up with you in a few days to see what he says? And if he is still hesitant, would you be willing to share his specific objections so we can better understand his position? Maybe we could discuss this with Rep. Jones directly, if that would be possible

Aide: That’s fine. I should get to talk to him later this week. If you call me Friday morning, I can give you feedback. As for talking to the Congressman directly, I can mention it to him but he’s got a pretty busy schedule.

Volunteer: Great. I’ll call you at 10:00am ET on Friday, if that works for you. Thank you, Jack.

Aide: That’s fine, Mr. Olson. I’ll talk to you then.