Since 2008, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”) has doubled in size. SNAP, more commonly known as the food stamp program, provides vouchers to qualifying individuals and households. Most of these individuals and households are poor or disabled and they exchange the vouchers for groceries at local retailers. In 2007, 26 million Americans received food stamps. Today, that number has grown to over 46 million.
Congress has traditionally authorized SNAP funding as part of its annual passage of the Farm Bill, which contains other provisions like agricultural subsidies. But for the first time in recent history, the House of Representatives voted to pass the Farm Bill without voting on SNAP funding. When the House finally voted on SNAP funding in mid-September, representatives, largely led by House republicans, voted to cut $40 billion from the food stamp budget over the next 10 years. They also voted to require some adults who would otherwise qualify for the program to meet work and work training requirements before they could receive assistance.
Senate leaders have vowed to vote the bill down, and President Obama has promised to veto the bill if it reaches his desk. But some state legislatures are taking the House’s lead. State representatives in at least half a dozen states have proposed scaling back food stamp programs. These representatives and the proponents of the bill in the House argue that the rapid expansion of the program is largely due to fraud, and should be cut back to close the deficit. Critics of the cuts argue that the food stamp programs work and that the decreased funding would deprive two million Americans of vital assistance.
In truth, SNAP remains a vital part of the social safety net. While the economy has started to recover, wages for working families have lagged behind financial growth. The average monthly household income of the 48 million Americans on food stamps is around $330. That in turn supplements a household’s food budget about $4.50 per day. Given that 46% of households enrolled in SNAP have to choose between paying for heat and buying food, this extra income is vitally important to their food security.
Proponents of cutting SNAP funding argue that the cuts are necessary to decrease the deficit. SNAP, however, only makes up 5% of mandatory spending in the federal budget, and that spending helps revitalize the country’s most depressed regions. Because the vouchers are often exchanged in local retailers, SNAP directly helps sustain low-income neighborhoods. Surprisingly, many congress members leading the charge to cut SNAP funding support farm subsidies, despite the fact that most of these subsidies go to farmers who are, on average, wealthier than most Americans. Of course, many of these representatives also receive substantial funding from these farm subsidies.
Proponents of SNAP cuts have publicized a few cases where able bodied individuals have taken advantage of the program, but allegations of fraud are largely imaginary. Fraud primarily comes in the form of “trafficking,” where recipients exchange food stamps for money to buy goods like alcohol and cigarettes that they cannot use food stamps to purchase. A Department of Agriculture report found that 10.5% of participating stores engaged in trafficking but that the number was decreasing even as SNAP funding increased. Proponents of cuts should ask themselves why they are prioritizing combating fraud and continuing farm subsidies in the face of 1/6 of Americans who worry daily about food security.