When I was a kid, I read all the horse stories I could get my hands on. A familiar scenario involved wild horses being driven into a box canyon from which they could not escape. These days, beneficiaries of SNAP can probably identify with those horses. Let me sketch in a few of the walls that make up this canyon – it won’t be a complete list.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) is cutting benefits beginning today, November 1. (Benefits had been expanded as part of the Recovery Act in 2009 to stimulate demand while the economy was in free fall. That provision just expired.) A family of four will now receive $36 per month less than they have been getting.
As time rolls on, the various components of the Recovery Act, which were carefully designed to be timely, targeted, and temporary, are expiring. The payroll tax holiday ended at the beginning of 2013. Another big hit will come on January 1, 2014 when emergency unemployment benefits end.
In addition, a conference committee to resolve differences in the Senate and House farm bills met for the first time Wednesday to decide how much more to cut from SNAP. The Senate calls for a $4 billion reduction over ten years, the House $39 billion.
As has been reported reasonably widely, the House bill would prevent states from getting permission to waive the 1996 SNAP work requirements during periods of high unemployment. This is expected to disqualify 1.7 million people. The House bill would also take away states’ flexibility to, for example, approve benefits for a single mother whose high child care costs in effect reduce her disposable income to a level that qualifies her for SNAP. This change would probably cut off another 2.1 million people.
The House bill would also reduce funding for job training, for nutrition education to help recipients get the most nutritional value for the money they spend on food, and for improving administration of the SNAP program.
We should remember that many programs in the social safety net were hit hard by sequestration in 2013 and may be hit again in 2014.
Is this starting to look like a box canyon?
The Southerland Amendment
In these kids’ stories, driving wild horses into a box canyon wasn’t an end in itself; it was a prelude to capturing them. They’d be broken to saddle and become a cowboy’s beloved partner in herding cattle. (In similar roundups today, they’re sometimes sold for slaughter.)
A much less widely publicized provision of the House bill (originally the Southerland Amendment and later Section 139) would give states 50% of any savings in the SNAP program resulting from cutting off the unemployed. States could use this money (that had been designated for hunger relief in the federal budget) for anything they wanted including tax cuts or subsidies to special interests. Nowhere in the bill is there any requirement that states make sure people have a job offer or chance to enroll in job training before cutting them off.
It looks to me like a bounty on the heads of the unemployed.
SNAP Cuts Counterproductive
Besides the obvious cruelty of these comprehensive attacks on the social safety net, they would be counterproductive to us as a society.
Researchers found that the increases in SNAP benefits in 2009 led to improvements in children’s health. That shouldn’t surprise anybody – we’ve all been taught that we’ll be healthier if we eat right – but this research adds to the evidence that small increases in benefits can lead to measurable health improvements in a short time. It’s no stretch to say that decreases in benefits will damage children’s health.
It’s worth noting that children whose families get cut off the SNAP rolls because of this legislation would also lose their eligibility for free lunches at school.
Adults’ health would be at increased risk, too. Diabetes is a concomitant of poverty as are other diseases such as tuberculosis. The SNAP program has been lifting 4 million people out of poverty each year. If it can’t do that any more, the nation will feel the effects. One estimate is that the public cost of managing diabetes will increase by nearly $15 billion.
Speaking of money, according to The New York Times these cuts due to expiration of Recovery Act programs are expected to decrease growth in the GDP: the end of the SNAP expansion by 0.2% in the 4th quarter of 2013 and 0.1% in future years; and the end of Emergency unemployment benefits by 0.4% in the 1st quarter of 2014. These numbers are significant. They compare to previous estimates of 2% growth in the fourth quarter of 2013 and similar amounts for the coming years.
Another way to look at it is in terms of the multiplier effect. Economists at Moody’s have consistently estimated that SNAP expenditures return about $1.75 to the economy for each $1 spent. Based on that figure, the House bill’s cut of $39 billion would mean an almost $70 billion hit to the economy over the ten years covered by the legislation.
Our economy has been struggling to recover from the 2008 financial crisis. 95% of the gains have gone to the people at the very top of the economic ladder. There are still about 3 unemployed workers for every job opening. It makes no sense to formulate policies that make recovery more difficult.
SNAP was designed to expand when the economy is bad and shrink again as the economy improves. So, if we want to spend less on the program, we have two basic options: First, we could try to improve the economy. Two simple ways of doing that include
1. Raising the minimum wage enough so that full-time workers don’t live in poverty, and
2. Funding repairs to our crumbling infrastructure. Many new jobs would be created and when those workers spent their paychecks to purchase goods and services, employers would be encouraged to hire yet more people.
Or, second, we could just drive the unemployed into a box canyon and put a bounty on them.
Food Research and Action Center
If you have questions about hunger in America, this site is a good place to start. For example, SNAP is for people with two types of food insecurity: Low Food Security involves needing to make changes in the quality or quantity of food because of a limited budget. Very Low Food Security involves frequent smaller or skipped meals for both adults and children.
Southerland Amendment Not a Normal “Work Requirement,” Would Reward States That Cut Unemployed Families Who Want to Work Off SNAP
By Robert Greenstein, June 21, 2013
A concise explanation of the Southerland Amendment and eloquent plea for not letting it become national policy.
I have been working on SNAP for 41 years and have always supported reasonable work requirements. There is a bright yellow line down the middle of the road between: 1) requiring people to try to find jobs, to take jobs that are offered, and not to quit jobs, and 2) denying benefits to people who do everything they can to get jobs but can’t find them and aren’t ever offered a work program or job training slot. The former is reasonable. The latter is not, and it should offend anyone with a sense of fairness and compassion.
“Cuts in House Leadership SNAP Proposal Would Affect Millions of Low-Income Americans”
By Dottie Rosenbaum, Stacy Dean, and Robert Greenstein
Revised September 17, 2013
A comprehensive examination of the House bill. Excellent. Demonstrates that elimination of waivers is a betrayal of the compromise that produced the 1996 welfare law. Includes refutation of claims that 1996 welfare work requirements were beneficial for the poor.