Examining Proposed SNAP Budget Cuts By Nicky Riordan
House Republicans proposed their 2018 budget plan Tuesday; a plan that closely mirrors President Trump’s proposal from earlier this year. The plan aims to accomplish both sweeping tax reform and a balanced budget without the need for bipartisan support in the Senate. In order to achieve this, Congressional Republicans are asking various committees to find over $200 billion in savings; including $10 billion from the committee that oversees funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.
The proposed budget plan is unlikely to move forward in its current form, but continues to highlight an ongoing problem with the rhetoric around social program spending. Legislators in favor of large cuts to social programs like SNAP argue that the spending behind these programs has become “unsustainable” and that reform in the shape of block grants and work requirements are necessary. This is a common argument used over time to criticize programs like SNAP when the cost to fund them rises, but spending on these programs should serve instead as a magnifying glass into the true state of the economy.
Needs-based programs like SNAP are tied to unrestricted federal funding in order to ensure that the program can fluctuate along with the national economy. Eligible recipients must qualify for the program based on their income, which typically caps around 130 percent of the poverty line for most programs - or approximately $30,000 a year for a family of four. During the recession, the number of families and individuals who qualified for SNAP skyrocketed from 37 million in 2007 to 51 million in 2013, and the participation rate of eligible individuals rose from 69 to 85 percent.
These figures helped illustrate the depth of the Great Recession. Although caseloads have been falling since 2015, SNAP spending still exceeds pre-recession levels. This is the data that Congressional Republicans use to claim that the program needs reform; however, a closer look at the data tells a more important story.
Estimates from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) suggest that SNAP is not part of the long-term budget problem and that continued economic recovery will reduce participation levels by 2 to 4 percent each year, resulting in pre-recession levels by 2026. The lag in declining caseloads for the program highlights the fact that low-income Americans historically benefit more slowly from an economic recovery, and from this recovery in particular.
Although unemployment is down, wage growth is almost stagnant for the lower-middle class, and research proves that the majority of SNAP recipients are working. Moreover, proponents for the program argue that the labor market for low-income households remains weak, and that common economic indicators such as the unemployment numbers overshadow continued hardship for this population. While economic dividends for the top 0.1 percent of earners in the U.S. has resumed post-recession, wage growth for the lower and middles classes has remained stagnant for decades.
Combining unprecedented tax cuts for primarily wealthy Americans with cuts to social programs that provide a safety net for the most vulnerable is a risky proposition for Congressional Republicans. Similar efforts regarding healthcare policy have not been successful. At a time when income inequality is more pronounced than ever, caseload trends from programs like SNAP should be looked to as important economic indicators, not as problems to be addressed through structural reform.
Nicky Riordan, Political Analyst, Utica College Center of Public Affairs and Election Research