Food support should be expanded, not reduced

Nearly a decade ago, The New York Times, employing statistics from various state agencies, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Census Bureau, created an interactive web map to show the level of SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) usage in every county in America. It revealed a surprising underuse of the program.

Here in Hennepin and Ramsey counties, for example, the data suggested only around 60 percent of all eligible households were receiving SNAP benefits. Almost instantly, a number of outreach initiatives at the local, state and national levels helped families who were eligible for SNAP apply for and access critical food support.

In 2018, just over 42 million individuals receive SNAP benefits, a figure that is analogous to the number of Americans “officially” living in poverty. This represents an increase of 38 percent or nearly 16 million people since 2007.

However, the cost of providing SNAP benefits has more than doubled during that same period to $63.7 billion annually. This has some lawmakers looking to cut these essential dollars going to low-income households.

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The first proposal of the current administration was to replace the standard EBT card with a “food box.” This would not only reduce the value of SNAP benefits to each home but eliminate the ability of recipients to choose their own food.

Shortly after this proposal, the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business surveyed dozens of economists who represented the entire spectrum of political and economic ideologies. According to The Los Angeles Times, the results of this survey revealed that the economists almost unanimously agreed that “the “food-box idea is absurd.”

One government official in Hawaii added that such a plan “would wreak havoc on the states.” Pulitzer Prize-winning financial journalist Michael Hiltzik called it “the meanest and dumbest approach to food stamps in recent memory.”

The current legislative showdown over the farm bill before the United States House of Representatives threatens to cut SNAP funding by upwards of $90 billion over the next 10 years. The rationale that lawmakers in favor of the cuts are using is that “able-bodied” SNAP recipients should be required to work in order to receive those benefits.

Recent data from several sources – including the American Farm Bureau Federation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and the Congressional Budget Office – reveal that most “able” recipients do in fact work.

For example, 74 percent of non-disabled, non-elderly adults who receive SNAP work each year. In multi-person households with a non-disabled, non-elderly adult, 81 percent work. And finally, in households that include children and at least one non-disabled, non-elderly adult, 87 percent participate in the workforce.

What should actually be of more concern to legislators and government agencies, according to several analysts is the so-called “SNAP gap,” evidence that the current funding level of SNAP benefits is, in reality, not enough to adequately serve Americans in need.

A new report by the Urban Institute, a Washington-based think tank, shows that the “average cost of a low-income meal is $2.36, 27 percent higher than the SNAP maximum benefit per meal of $1.86”: a 50-cent national SNAP gap.

Moreover, unlike the tool that produces America’s federal poverty guidelines, this analysis does account for geographic differences in the price of food among the 48 contiguous states. As such, America’s current SNAP per meal benefit fails to cover the actual costs of a meal in 99 percent of the counties in the contiguous United States, as well as Washington, D.C.

Here in the Twin Cities metro, the 50-cent national SNAP gap is comparable to the current gap in Scott and Washington counties. In Scott County, the gap is even lower.

However, the SNAP gaps in Ramsey, Dakota, Hennepin, and Carver counties all exceed the national difference, with the average price of a “low-income meal” coming in at $2.45, $2.46, $2.54, and $3.10 respectively. In these four metro counties, the value of SNAP benefits is less than it is in the overwhelming majority of counties in the Midwest and most counties nationwide.

If the national average value of SNAP benefits, with very few exceptions, is roughly 22 percent less than it should be, how can any lawmaker in good conscience be looking to cut food support to our most vulnerable populations? SNAP benefits should be expanded.