Problems with Efforts to Reform SNAP By Nicky Riordan
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, has been defended over time as one of the most effective and efficient federal entitlement programs. There are many reasons for the program's general popularity and success, including the funding structure of the program as an entitlement, uniform eligibility rules that make the program accessible, and rigorous requirements that uphold the integrity of the program.
Still, some federal and state lawmakers remain determined to undermine the program with efforts to block grant the funding and impose unnecessary requirements. These proposals not only fail to achieve measurable improvements to the program, but are also often fiscally irresponsible.
Most recently, Republican lawmakers in Michigan introduced a bill to impose more purchasing restrictions on SNAP recipients, specifically aiming to remove soda from permissible expenditures. This is a common way that critics of the program try to increase stigma and discourage participation. The mischaracterization of a new USDA analysis of SNAP food purchases spurred a new round of attempts. The analysis in fact found “no major differences” between the purchasing decisions of households with or without SNAP, concluding that all U.S. households consume more unhealthy food than recommended.
Another common effort to undermine programs like SNAP is state legislation that requires drug testing of all recipients. Proponents argue that this type of requirement will save taxpayers money by weeding out those who might abuse the program. As of this March at least 20 states have proposed such legislation. In Florida; however, only 2.6 percent of applicants over a four month period that was examined. State reimbursements to those who passed cost the state an additional $45,780.
Block granting SNAP has long been a goal of Republican lawmakers, but lessons learned from welfare reform under President Clinton suggest that this would be catastrophic to the program. Most notably, it would no longer be responsive to economic downturns such as the recent Great Recession. SNAP reduced the poverty rate by 15.9 percent in 2011 amidst the recession, making it the “most effective antipoverty program among the non-elderly”. Moreover, although caseloads increased significantly between 2007 and 2011, the increase began to slow in 2012 and has since been on the decline as the economy recovers.
Policy experts agree that proposals aimed to strengthen access to SNAP increase its effectiveness, which is good for the economy and better for the low-income families it supports. Without a consensus to end SNAP altogether, lawmakers will continue to try to undermine the program in various ways. Unfortunately, these efforts are often not based on evidence, but on partisan criticisms regarding the morality of entitlement programs; and they result in wasted time and taxpayer money that could be used to further improve the program and lift more families out of poverty.
Nicky Riordan, M.A. Peace and Justice Studies at The University of San Diego