One in six Americans, or roughly 47 million people, do not know how or when they will be able to access and afford a nutritionally adequate meal. The American classification of the condition formerly known as hunger is now “very low food security.”
Meanwhile, 217 food-secure Americans have decided that trimming the country’s premier anti-hunger program by $40 billion over the next 10 years is a wise and prudent action amid our budgetary woes.
Unfortunately, constituents on both sides have been more preoccupied with juicy editorials and sound bites, in a way that has reduced the nuts and bolts of government programs into a simplistic battle of hunger relief versus budget relief. A more fruitful conversation that needs happen would involve the reasons behind recent increases in food-stamp recipients, an evaluation of the current program, and an honest assessment of the provisions that will make the program more sustainable and beneficial for its recipients.
In order to attain a successful government hunger-relief program, there are a few facts that must be established. First, Americans on all sides must recognize that the rise in SNAP recipients is a response to the state of the economy. In fact, when unemployment increased by 94% between 2007 and 2011, SNAP enrollment increased by 71%. As patterns in the program have proven, the number of new SNAP cases will decrease as the economy continues to recover. Research from the Congressional Budget Office points to SNAP enrollment falling to 1995 levels by 2019 as the economy continues to recover. In addition to SNAP’s organic response to the economic climate, the program is already slated to become more affordable as it will lose $5 billion with the expiration of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act on November 1. ARRA, or the stimulus, accounted for 20% of the increased funding for SNAP in 2009.
The second missing piece of the SNAP debate is the reluctance of some advocates to realize that its current model does not support nor promote moving out of the program. If 50% of SNAP benefits are given to households who have utilized the program for 8.5 years or more, then it is awfully hard to argue that it is a temporary relief program. The way to address this dichotomy is to implement an effective SNAP Employment and Training Program that is measured and rewarded fairly. As it stands, able-bodied adults without dependents (meaning that they are between the ages of 18 and 50, are not disabled, and do not have children under the age of seven) must apply for a certain number of jobs each month and participate in a set amount of hours of employment programs.
The issue with the current SNAP employment and training program is that most states have provided a large range of waivers amidst high unemployment. In order for it to have any substantial impact, SNAP E&T must be mandatory. However, the current model, which threatens recipients with a three-year sanction if they fail to apply for 15 jobs a month, 20 hours of employment programs, and find and accept employment within the first three months of receiving SNAP, is unfair and misguided. A mix of providing more employment training opportunities, awarding grants to states that are able to effectively document and increase the amount of former recipients who move out from the program to finding full employment, and implementing a more gradual decrease to enrollees’ SNAP benefits as opposed to substantial and sudden cuts for households that find work is a wiser direction.
Finally, it must be made clear that the $40 billion in cuts to the SNAP program that Congress just passed will affect multiple aspects of the program. Not only will 4 million Americans lose their SNAP benefits each year, but the staffing of local departments of social services and their ability to effectively and efficiently enroll households into the program will be compromised. With less money for one of the most overworked and understaffed divisions of any local government, there will almost certainly be more SNAP errors with over- or under-issuance of benefits, or inability to thoroughly investigate and screen applications. With Obama’s increased funding for SNAP, SNAP fraud decreased by 57% and SNAP trafficking dropped from 3.8 cents per SNAP dollar to 1.8 cents for every SNAP dollar. Now, those who are in support of cutting all of the progress that’s been made in the way SNAP applications are screened and tracked can expect more of the stories that they’ve obsessively highlighted in the papers.