In June, I had the privilege of attending Bread for the World’s Lobby Day. I was part of delegations visiting aids of both Michigan senators and of Representative Huizenga. While visiting Rep. Huizenga’s aid, we discussed SNAP benefits (formerly, food stamps), and the subject of categorical eligibility (CE) came up. I must admit, that I hadn’t heard of it. The aid informed us that CE needed to be eliminated, because it was allowing the states to disregard the normal SNAP eligibility requirements, replacing them with very lax standards. I replied that I was somewhat familiar with Michigan’s SNAP eligibility rules—an income test, an asset test, and work requirements—and that these seemed restrictive to me. The aid responded that the tests I had just cited were the rules when CE was not applied, not the lax rules allowed under CE.
Well, I have done my homework now, and unless the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities and Feeding America have it all wrong, the aid was mistaken. My research has prompted me to write the following account of the current House Republican proposals on SNAP.
According to the Michigan League for Human Services, 17.9% of Michigan residents and 23.7% of Michigan’s children are food insecure, meaning that sometime during the year they have insufficient resources to obtain adequate nutrition. Yet, the Republicans in the US House of Representatives are now supporting proposals that would reduce SNAP by about $40 billion over the next ten years.
Approximately half this amount would be saved by eliminating CE, a long-standing provision that allows states to align their SNAP eligibility requirements with requirements for other programs under TANF block grants. By allowing states to waive the general SNAP gross income and asset tests, while retaining all other requirements (e.g., a limit on disposable income), CE enables states and SNAP applicants alike avoid an undue paperwork burden. The claim that CE allows states wide latitude in determining SNAP eligibility (thus opening the door to abuse) is false.
Most of the remainder of the savings would come from eliminating a measure that allows states to waive a rule restricting SNAP benefits to nondisabled childless unemployed adults between the ages of 18 and 50 years. The rule limits SNAP benefits to such adults to 3 months every three years. The measure to be eliminated allows states to waive the three-month limit in cases of high unemployment. Many people who would lose their benefits under this change are among the poorest of the poor and have few skills. Their gross incomes average only 22 percent of the poverty line.
House Republicans claim they are just eliminating waste—in a program known for its low fraud/error rates and efficiency. Strangely, House Republicans’ SNAP proposals also eliminate educational funds that could be used to help SNAP beneficiaries select healthy foods and incentives for states to reduce their error rates. What could be wrong with these?
Perhaps the proposed changes would eliminate a few people who don’t need SNAP. But do we really have a problem with large numbers of unmotivated slackers receiving SNAP benefits? On average, SNAP households receive benefits for just 9 months at a time. More importantly, because of these efforts to weed out undeserving SNAP beneficiaries, millions of truly needy Americans will have their benefits reduced or eliminated. Then what? Can the churches pick up the slack? That is not realistic; churches and charities too have been hit hard by the recession.
So, the proposals will increase the costs of states administering SNAP, and, most important, they will increase the problems associated with food insecurity: poor health, poor educational outcomes, and the like. Are we coming out ahead?
The impact of nutritional deprivation in small children merits special note. A 25-year study of babies born with crack cocaine addiction reached a startling conclusion. The problems experienced by the babies turned out to be caused by poverty rather than the cocaine addition! (See www.mlpp.org/povertys-impact.)
Our lawmakers would do well to shift their efforts toward providing greater help—not less help—to the many hungry people in our society. Perhaps they need to visit the folks seeking assistance at their local food pantry. Last year, a member of the Holland Bread Team interviewed some folks at a Holland food pantry. One interviewee commented “The program is a blessing for the community. … They might not understand, but we see it everyday.” Another commented, “You don’t really know the need until you see it in people’s faces and hear it in their voices.”
The following organizations provide valuable information on SNAP.
- Bread for the Word (www.bread.org)
- The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (www.cbpp.org)
- The Michigan League for Human Services (www.milhs.org)
- The USDA (www.fns.usda.gov/snap)
- Feeding America (www.feedingamerica.org)