Home > Uncategorized > SNAP Food Assistance Reductions Are Playing With Fire – posted 3/4/2018 and published in the Concord Monitor on 3/11/2018

SNAP Food Assistance Reductions Are Playing With Fire – posted 3/4/2018 and published in the Concord Monitor on 3/11/2018

The President’s 2019 budget proposal shines a spotlight on his priorities and values. I think it is safe to say his priority is not the well-being of Americans of modest means.

Only a short time after he signed a tax cut law that enormously benefits himself and his 1% friends, he proposed a budget that features devastating cuts for low-income working families, children and the elderly.

I think the proposed SNAP food assistance cuts are probably the worst. SNAP is the program that used to be called Food Stamps. The program still reaches huge numbers of Americans: over 41 million people in 21 million households. SNAP has been a bulwark against hunger and malnutrition. The Administration is playing with fire with these cuts.

Among human needs, hunger holds a centrality. Cutting off utilities or getting evicted certainly has downsides but hunger is about life itself. Hunger leads to its own brand of desperation. If food stamps are drastically reduced, the need for food does not go away. Hunger is a need that must be at least partially met.

Those experiencing hunger will turn to their families, friends, and then local authorities for help. Downshifting costs to cities and towns would be one result . Those unable to get any assistance will either go hungry or try other means, outside the law.

The President proposes to reduce SNAP spending by an astronomical $213 billion over 10 years. That would amount to nearly a 40% cut. The largest cut would come from cutting household benefits.

SNAP participants get an average of $126 per month in food assistance. That is about $1.40 to spend per meal. Two-thirds of SNAP participants are children, elderly or disabled. No policy rationale or evidence-based study has been presented to justify the reduction.

There are a multitude of cuts embedded in the specifics of the proposal. It is a death-by-a-thousand-cuts strategy. For example, the proposal would force states to time-limit food assistance to unemployed individuals who live in high-unemployment areas. It would eliminate state flexibility in exempting vulnerable individuals from the time limit.

It punishes older workers by subjecting them to a time limit. Food Stamp law currently restricts benefits to three months out of 36 months for individuals age 18 to 49 who are childless unless they are working 20 hours a week. The proposal changes the upper age for that restriction to 62.

The biggest SNAP cut comes from the proposal to restructure how food stamp benefits would be distributed. Under the proposal, instead of letting households that receive more than $90 a month use their SNAP benefits to buy food at their local grocery store, about half the funds would be provided in the form of a box of non-perishable foods such as shelf-stable milk, juice, ready-to-eat cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans, and canned foods.

The so-called “Harvest Box” would be scaled to the household’s size and benefit amount. The budget proposal suggest that participants would have no choice in what food they receive. Things that are not liked would go to waste and there is no accommodation for dietary or cultural need. The proposal fails to explain how the Harvest Boxes would be delivered.

It is hard to know where to begin in cataloguing what is objectionable in the Harvest Box idea. First, I think of the denial of agency. The SNAP participant now can decide for themselves what to buy and when they want to buy it within the parameters of the program. The government, to a significant degree, would usurp control and decide what people eat and when they get it.

We would be replacing a very efficient system where benefits are issued monthly via an electronic benefits card (EBT) with a new government bureaucracy. The USDA and states currently lack the operational capacity and infrastructure to get this job done and that would have to be created.

Instead of SNAP participants purchasing food at local businesses, we would have the government providing a pre-assembled kit. Harvest Boxes would be a negative hit on food retailers.

Nutritionally, the Harvest Box would actually restrict access to fresh fruits and vegetables which are generally more expensive than non-perishable packaged foods. By reducing food purchasing power, the proposal would leave less dollars for healthier foods.

Related and relevant to nutrition, the budget proposes to terminate funding for SNAP nutrition education grants. These grants, long a part of the program, have been designed to address obesity, junk food choices, and to improve nutritional levels among low-income households. In our state, UNH Co-op Extension has played a critical role on this front.

Probably most objectionable is the matter of stigma. The EBT system was consciously designed to reduce stigma as the use of EBT cards was very consistent with how Americans shop. Replacing EBT with a model requiring SNAP participants to go to a government food distribution center is a step backwards. This is particularly true if people think the pre-assembled food kit does not contain food they want to buy.

The Boston Globe’s Devra First calls the Harvest Box “a box of low esteem”. You have to wonder about the mentality behind this program design. I believe the intent is public shaming. Many will not partake in this scheme because they will not want to go to a government food distribution center to receive food they would not be likely to buy.

The Administration’s SNAP cuts reflect a hardened and heartless view of people who need food assistance. Rather than seeing legitimate need, the assumption is that SNAP participants are scammers or people who are trying to get out of work.

Contrary to much public perception, SNAP already has work requirements. In SNAP households, with at least one working-age, non-disabled adult, 58% were employed but did not make enough to leave SNAP. 82% were employed prior to or after receiving SNAP. Work rates are even higher among households with children.

Whether the SNAP cuts move forward probably depend on politics since 2018 is an election year. There are indications that conservatives fear running on the cuts because the optics stink. They look mean both decreasing benefit amounts and tightening eligibility requirements.

I am reminded of the old demonstration chant, “they say cutback, we say fight back”.

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