Time to Recognize SNAP Works

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

Mark Winne on July 24th launched an attack on anti-hunger groups for creating and adhering to “orthodoxy” – i.e., in his words, acting as “pit bull defenders” of SNAP (food stamps) that “threaten to rip the limbs off heretics” who might “modify” SNAP, and that “oppose food stamp change at any cost.” Winne doesn’t actually propose any changes, although he seems comfortable with the disastrous recent House of Representatives’ splitting of the Farm Bill into two parts, and he references New York City’s ill-conceived proposal – rejected by USDA – for a sloppily evaluated “demonstration project” limiting the food choice of two million people.

Winne’s argument is based on alleging that “a program now more than 50 years old remains largely unchanged even though the nation has changed in myriad ways.” Winne seems not to have been paying attention for the last four decades as the anti-hunger groups he excoriates have successfully fought for wave after wave of improvements and reforms:

  • Setting national minimum standards of eligibility so that recalcitrant states and counties actually have to provide help to their neediest and hungriest residents;
  • Ending the requirement that families must provide cash to the state in return for food stamps (of a larger amount) – the “purchase requirement,” which was a hurdle that kept millions of poor families out of SNAP;
  • Switching from paper coupons to electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards, creating a modernized program with virtually no fraud, reduced stigma at the retailer, and retailers and beneficiaries more likely to participate;
  • Improving rules so that low-income working families who desperately need SNAP to supplement low wages have better access– now more than half of SNAP households with a non-disabled working age adult work while receiving SNAP; in an economy that continues to produce too many low-wage and part-time jobs that leave families unable to afford necessities, SNAP has changed to become an essential work support;
  • Creating a state option to liberalize asset rules, responding to the recognition that assets matter to families and seniors and that government programs should not force people to divest themselves of nearly all their resources in order to get benefits (more than 40 states now use this option; the House of Representatives would shut it down);
  • Improving minimum content requirements for stores to participate in SNAP;
  • Building multi-benefit access models and online portals so that families don’t face the Sisyphean job of perfecting different complicated applications at physically separate locations in order to get Medicaid, the EITC, the Child Tax Credit (CTC), SNAP, school meals and child care help;
  • Seeking to address the fundamental problem that monthly SNAP benefit amounts are not enough for a healthy diet by successfully pushing for Institute of Medicine recognition of the shortfall and by supporting legislation to change the allotment (with success in the ARRA law, albeit that allotment boost expires later this year);
  • Supporting efforts to make SNAP benefits usable at farmers’ markets; and
  • Recognizing that the nutrition programs alone aren’t enough to address poverty and end hunger, and pushing for increases in the minimum wage, and for dramatic improvements in the EITC, CTC, health insurance coverage, and other key supports.

Other proposals for progressive change can be found in A Review of Strategies to Bolster SNAP’s Role in Improving Nutrition as well as Food Security, and in Replacing the Thrifty Food Plan in Order to Provide Adequate Allotments for SNAP Beneficiaries.

Winne’s plea for more “heresy” is also based on minimizing the positive impacts of SNAP – he says SNAP only “modestly stimulates local economies,” does “marginally little to pull recipients out of poverty,” and does little for nutritional health. That’s wrong on all three counts, but serves his purposes by inviting critics and interest groups with other agendas to harm the program. Obviously a SNAP program with better benefits and fewer arbitrary eligibility exclusions could do more, but here’s what SNAP already does to fight hunger and poverty and improve nutrition:

  • Economists generally describe SNAP as, dollar-for-dollar, the most effective form of economic stimulus; during local, regional and national downturns SNAP is highly responsive and economically essential.
  • This is in part because SNAP is so urgently needed by families that benefits are spent quickly – 97 percent are redeemed by the end of the month of issuance – thereby bolstering local economies as well as helping struggling families at their point of great need.
  • SNAP significantly decreases family and child food insecurity.
  • SNAP lifted nearly five million Americans above the poverty line on 2011, including more than two million children. SNAP nearly equals the EITC in anti-poverty effectiveness and is far more effective than any other program in lifting families out of deep poverty (incomes below half the poverty line). SNAP cuts in half extreme poverty among children (those in families living on less than $2 per person per day).
  • SNAP has positive effects decades after participation: access in childhood leads to a significant reduction in the incidence of metabolic syndrome and, for women, an increase in economic self-sufficiency as adults.
  • Children receiving SNAP are less likely to be underweight or at risk for developmental delays. Higher SNAP benefits improve children’s health status. (For the full range of SNAP’s positive contributions to health, read SNAP and Public Health: The Role of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in Improving the Health and Well-Being of Americans.) As the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s James Marks wrote: “SNAP helps families stretch their food dollars to alleviate hunger and buy healthier foods….As we strive for a full economic recovery and a healthier nation, supporting SNAP is both the right thing to do and the smart thing to do.”

When Winne complains that obesity is now a greater problem than hunger that is not hardly a reason to dismantle the program that drove down hunger and is not causing obesity.

Winne offers his piece as “strategic thinking” and contrasts it to the “unexamined” work of anti-hunger groups. To him, meeting the most fundamental needs of 48 million people apparently is just mindless “orthodoxy.” But criticism devoid of any positive ideas that can be enacted is nihilism, not a strategy.

Jim Weill is President of the Food Research and Action Center