Why the Current Structure of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Should be Maintained

Staff Editor Madeline Curtis reflects on the importance of preserving the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. GJPLP has more on the changing nature of SNAP in Sarah Carrier’s recent Note, From Paper to Electronic: Food Stamps, Social Security, and the Changing Functionality of Government Benefits, which can be found on WestLaw and Lexis.

by Madeline Curtis

Per data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 12.7% (15.8 million) of U.S. households were food insecure at some time during 2015.[1]  Fortunately, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program distributes around $70 billion in benefits to approximately 45 million recipients each year,[2] helping to curb the prevalence of food insecurity and poverty in our country.  In fact, according to a study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, SNAP lifts millions of households out of poverty, keeping 10.3 million people (including 4.9 million children) out of poverty in 2012.[3]  A White House report on the long-term benefits of SNAP found recent research showing that participation in the program leads to “significant improvements in the health and well-being of low-income families.”  Additionally, children who receive food assistance show improvements in health, education, and economic status.[4]  Further, SNAP has one of the lowest error rates of any public benefit program and a strong record of accuracy in payment.[5]

A strong, effective program like SNAP should be protected and promoted, however, dangerous proposals from House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) and other congressional republicans may dismantle the program as we know it, placing millions of Americans at risk for hunger.  In March, the House Budget Committee approved a plan that would turn the program into a block-grant in 2021 and cut funding by $125 billion, or about 30%, over five years.[6]  Similarly, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) has repeatedly advocated for “opportunity grants” that would consolidate several federal programs like SNAP, child care, and housing vouchers into a single block grant to each state.[7]

Block grants are a set amount of funding allocated by the federal government to state and local governments.  Block grant recipients typically have great discretion in how to distribute the funds, with minimal oversight from the federal government.  Currently, SNAP is run as an entitlement program, meaning anyone who meets federal qualification standards can receive benefits.  This ensures that the program can quickly respond to changes in demand, for example, during times of recession or after a natural disaster.  While block granting the program may give states more flexibility to distribute funds as they see fit, it restricts the ability of states to respond to economic downturns.  In times of increased need, say after a factory closing leaves thousands unemployed, a state would have to make difficult decisions about whose benefits to reduce or eliminate.  Further, states would have the discretion to choose to reallocate funding for food assistance to other purposes, potentially reducing the number of food insecure families that receive the benefit.

Given the demonstrated benefits of SNAP, its low error rate, and strong anti-poverty effects, the current structure of SNAP should be preserved and maintained.  The risks and cuts associated with block grants are too high to bear and will place millions of Americans at a greater risk of poverty.

[1] Economic Research Service, U.S.  Dep’t. of Agric., Food Security in the U.S., Key Statistics & Graphics (Oct. 11, 2016), https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-us/key-statistics-graphics/.

[2] Food and Nutrition Service, U.S.  Dep’t. of Agric., Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), National Level Annual Summary (Jan. 6, 2017), https://www.fns.usda.gov/pd/supplemental-nutrition-assistance-program-snap.

[3] Brynne Keith-Jennings, SNAP Lifts Millions of Kids out of Poverty, Ctr. on Budget and Pol’y Priorities (Oct. 5, 2016), http://www.cbpp.org/blog/snap-lifts-millions-of-kids-out-of-poverty.

[4] Council of Economic Advisers, Long-Term Benefits of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (Dec. 2015), https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/sites/obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/files/documents/SNAP_report_final_nonembargo.pdf.

[5] Food and Nutrition Service, U.S.  Dep’t. of Agric., Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Quality Control (Jan. 4, 2017), https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/quality-control.

[6] U.S. H.R. Comm. on the Budget, Fiscal Year 2017 Budget (Mar. 2016), http://budget.house.gov/uploadedfiles/fy2017_a_balanced_budget_for_a_stronger_america.pdf.

[7]Theodore Schleifer, G.O.P Congressman’s Plan to Fight Poverty Shifts Efforts to States, N.Y. Times, (July 24, 2014), https://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/25/us/politics/paul-ryan-poverty-program-budget.html?_r=0.