Four Key Facts About SNAP

The views presented in these blogs are those of the authors.

When Congress picks up its Farm Bill deliberations in September, proposed cuts to SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamps) will once again be on the table. Recent reports suggest that House leadership is considering a package that would cut SNAP by some $40 billion over 10 years – twice the level of cuts included in the original House Farm Bill. With that debate in mind, here are four important facts about this efficient and effective program that lifted about 4.7 million Americans — including about 2.1 million children — above the poverty line in 2011:

Fact #1: SNAP’s recent growth is temporary and shows that the program is working as designed.

  • SNAP responded quickly and effectively to the recession. SNAP spending rose considerably when the recession hit. That’s precisely what SNAP was designed to do: quickly help more low-income families during economic downturns as poverty rises, unemployment mounts, and more people need assistance.

  • SNAP spending growth is expected to fall in the coming year or two and is not contributing to the nation’s long-term fiscal problems. According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, SNAP spending will fall as a share of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the coming years as the economy recovers.

Fact #2: SNAP is a powerful anti-poverty tool.

  • SNAP households have very low incomes. 80 percent of SNAP households have gross incomes below the poverty line. Over 40 percent have gross incomes below half the poverty line (about $9,500 for a family of three).

  • SNAP is a powerful antidote to extreme poverty. The number of U.S. families living on less than $2 per person a day — one World Bank definition of poverty for developing nations — doubled between 1996 and 2011, as did the number of extremely poor children. However, counting SNAP benefits as income cuts the number of households in extreme poverty in 2011 from 1.46 million to nearly 800,000 and cuts the number of children in extreme poverty from 2.8 million to 1.4 million.

Fact #3: SNAP rules both encourage and reward work.

  • Most SNAP recipients who can work do work. Among SNAP households with at least one working-age, non-disabled adult, 58 percent work while receiving SNAP — and 82 percent work in the year before or after receiving SNAP. The rates are even higher for families with children: 62 percent work while receiving SNAP and 87 percent work in the prior or subsequent year.

  • SNAP’s benefit formula includes work incentives to ensure that households are financially better off if they get a job or raise their earnings. For example, SNAP rules deduct 20 percent of a household’s gross earnings before computing benefit amounts, which allows a household with a wage earner to qualify for higher benefits. Also, when a SNAP recipient increases her earnings, her SNAP benefits decline only modestly and gradually — by 24 to 36 cents for each additional dollar earned.

Fact #4: SNAP has a strong record of efficiency.

  • SNAP has one of the most rigorous quality control systems of any public benefit program. Only 3 percent of SNAP benefits represent overpayments, meaning they either went to ineligible households or went to eligible households but in excessive amounts. SNAP achieved its lowest error rate on record in fiscal year 2011, with a national overpayment rate of just 2.99 percent. The underpayment rate that year was 0.81 percent. Thus, the net loss to the federal government — the amounts lost through overpayments minus those saved by underpayments — was only 2.2 percent.

  • Almost 95 percent of federal SNAP spending goes directly to families to buy food. Most of the rest goes toward administrative costs, including reviews to determine that applicants are eligible, monitoring of retailers that accept SNAP, and anti-fraud activities.

SNAP is working as it was designed to, serves vulnerable populations, encourages work, and is efficient and effective — all good reasons to protect this critical program from damaging cuts.

Stacy Dean is Vice President for Food Assistance Policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. She works with program administrators, policymakers, and non-profit organizations to improve SNAP and provide eligible low-income families easier access to its benefits.