You may have heard SNAP mentioned in the news recently, in connection to the House budget proposal. I don’t know about you, but I think there’s some pretty confusing rhetoric surrounding SNAP: what the benefits actually entail, who they are for and what SNAP’s success has been throughout the years. SNAP has become a polarizing issue in our de facto two-party system and I think this congressional in-fighting has resulted in stereotypes on both sides of the aisle and–worst of all–a crippling stigma attached to anyone who uses an electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card. My friends, it’s high time we had a talk about SNAP.
I recently participated in Hunger Action Day at the Capitol and it became painfully obvious to me how effective some of our statesmen are at keeping Oklahoma in poverty. I had the opportunity to talk with one of my representatives about the people we serve at the Food Bank and was expressing the importance of the assistance we provide, because SNAP benefits only last a family so long. My representative replied–steering the conversation a weird direction–that “Well, you know some people sell their food stamps for money,” and then, when I tried to talk about the number of children we help: “It’s so sad that parents neglect their kids because they’re addicted to meth.” I wish I’d had the courage to say “Show me the data,” but instead I told my representative that while stereotypes exist for a reason, there are people like Shawna: single mom, college degree, left in poverty with a mountain of debt by a deserting father. We used to think a college degree would keep us safe, but we’re finding out that’s not always true. Not in this fast-paced world.
My aim in sharing Shawna’s story wasn’t to question the value of a college degree: it was to subtly confront prejudice. Sadly, I could tell my illustration fell on deaf ears, because my representative treated it like an exception rather than an example. The rest of our meeting was all smiling and nodding of heads as I–sorrowfully deflated–tried to salvage the conversation. After a couple more minutes, I went on to my next appointment and my representative went on to represent someone else.
I kept replaying our conversation, hearing those awful words echo in my mind. I think what irked me the most is that my representative has been voting the same way, for over ten years, based on those generalizations. I would never consider it acceptable–in service to the public or otherwise–to make decisions based on vague, indefensible feelings. Simply, I expect diligence from my legislator. And goodness gracious, even if there is a correlation between meth addiction and child hunger: correlation doesn’t imply causation.
In summation, I left worse for the wear, feeling demoralized, insulted and somewhat hopeless.
Now I’m saying: show me the data.
SNAP–then known as food stamps–began in the 1930s in response to unattractive surpluses and high unemployment. After continuing for a about four years, food stamps went on sabbatical until it they were reintroduced by an executive order under John F. Kennedy in 1961 and then continued as a pilot until Lyndon B. Johnson made the program permanent in 1964. The EBT card was introduced in 1984 and participation continued to grow nationwide over the next twenty years. Finally, in 2008, the Food Stamp Program was renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program–SNAP for short. (USDA)
The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service–SNAP’s umbrella–runs 15 programs and reaches 1 in 5 Americans every year: SNAP alone serves 28 million people per day (USDA). SNAP lifted 5 million people and over 2 million children out of poverty in 2012, according to the Census Bureau (USDA). Furthermore, in 2012, 82% of eligible Oklahomans participated in SNAP which–believe it or not–ranked us 34th in the nation for SNAP utilization (USDA). 707,000 Oklahoma residents were eligible for SNAP in 2012, with just under 580,000 participating (FRAC), or about 15% of the population (Census Bureau). That rate increased by 1% in 2014, with 608,492 participating (USDA)–16% of the population (Census Bureau)–an estimate confirmed by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP).
Nonetheless, in early February, the Wall Street Journal reported that House Republicans were “laying the groundwork for a revision,” beginning with hearings at the end of February in the House Agriculture Committee (WSJ). Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA) launched an effort using #FillUpYourPlate to show what SNAP means to Americans who support the program, leading up to the first SNAP hearing in the House Agriculture Committee at the end of February (FRAC). Many shared their stories with Rep. McGovern and voiced their concerns, along with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, about cutting farm bill programs. These concerns were heightened when Rep. Mike Conway (R-TX), chair of the House Agriculture Committee, reportedly said: “What we don’t want is for this program to hold people back from achieving their potential” (HuffPost), which was followed by Vilsack’s announcement of a $200 million commitment to job training programs for SNAP recipients (USDA), widely viewed as pacifying maneuver while cuts loomed on the horizon. Rep. Conway then declared, somewhat vaguely, that “… either huge reforms or small reforms” would come from his panel’s review (ABC). Ultimately–in mid March–the House budget proposed $5.5 trillion in cuts over 10 years, with $125 billion (FRAC) of those trillions coming from SNAP (NYT), as well as converting the program into a block-grant (PR Newswire).
It’s estimated that 705,000 households in Republican districts will be affected by the proposed cuts (FRAC) and 12 million people nationwide (Take Part). Now, it’s important to note that the Senate’s proposed budget does not expressly convert SNAP to a block-grant format and contains no cuts to agriculture. But a resolution remains to be seen, as the House and Senate negotiate the reconciliation instructions that will determine whether the block-grant language “has teeth” (Take Part and Feeding America).
So, what’s the argument against the program? Opponents of SNAP claim it is a wasteful, abusive, widely fraudulent system. Let’s unpack that. First, some say SNAP spending is out of control, but–according to U.S. News & World Report–SNAP spending has only recently increased, between 2007 and 2011. (Huh, anyone remember what happened around that time? The Great Recession.) Another portion of the increase is temporary, as mandated by the 2009 Recovery Act. When considering these increases, keep in mind that SNAP generates $1.80 in economic activity for every $1 spent (USDA). Furthermore, of SNAP recipients who are eligible to work–the one third that are not children, elderly, or disabled–90% do so (USN). The accusation that SNAP beneficiaries are “living off welfare” doesn’t hold much water. And when it comes to fraud rates, SNAP boasts one of the lowest fraud rates of all government programs, about 1% (NYT). In fact, it’s been reported that recent increases in SNAP fraud are simply due to program expansion–both to retailers and recipients–but still remain close to historic lows (Media Matters). While SNAP trafficking should trouble us, it is also not necessarily feeding addictions: sometimes a recipient trades his or her SNAP benefits for cash to keep the lights on or fill up the car (NYT). Further to the program’s credit, SNAP error rates are the lowest they’ve ever been: you can read more on that here and here (CBPP). If you’re interested in fraud prevention and detection efforts, check out the most recent full audit (USDA).
So, are the majority of beneficiaries selling their SNAP benefits to feed meth addictions? I just don’t buy that.
Look, I’m not saying I can or ever will be able to wrap my head around all of the ways SNAP affects our economy–and I believe in avoiding the “when helping hurts” pitfall, especially when it comes to government assistance–but ultimately I support SNAP, on a moral basis, as a necessary institution in our society. Most of us are aware that poverty is the real issue here, but how do we fix that? Through education. There is a cacophony of rhetoric floating around regarding education these days, related to real, systemic issues, but I think people are still generally in favor of public education and willingly, if somewhat begrudgingly, pay tax dollars to support it. I consider SNAP a weapon in the fight against poverty, just like education. If we’re not sure about the adults, let’s at least agree about the children, caught in the middle: if SNAP helps a kid eat, so he or she can go to school and make it through the education system to a better life, it is fulfilling its purpose. And that’s what I see.
Nationwide, 80% of children are eligible–below 185% of the federal poverty level (FPL)–for SNAP and other nutrition programs and 45% of SNAP recipients are children: those are statistics we shouldn’t ignore (Feeding America).
Where are we, as a people, if we do not help each other not only survive, but thrive?
Please refrain from snap judgments and don’t accept vague generalizations as fact.
We deserve more from our legislators and they deserve more from us.
Since I work at a food bank, I’m often writing thank you letters. I always include a personal note and this is one of my favorite lines: each pound counts; each life matters.
I’ll leave you with that sentiment.
Disclaimer: The views, beliefs and opinions expressed in this article are my own and should not be misconstrued as the official policy or position of my previous employer.
Follow-up: If you liked this piece, you might be interested in FRAC’s most recent release–the How Hungry is America? report–which ranks Oklahoma 12th in food hardship. To take action, sign this SNAP petition. And really, you have power in your pocket: tweet at your legislators if they can’t visit with you or take your call.
Related reading: The Washington Post wrote about the double-standard of making the poor prove they’re worthy of government benefits.