Oh SNAP!

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a federally funded program under the Department of Agriculture that helps low-income households buy groceries, commonly known as food stamps. SNAP is managed at the state level, with different states having slightly different requirements for participation.

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Generally speaking, SNAP is a program designed for children and elderly people. The majority of households receiving benefits had children (75%) or elderly people (16%). People who are between 18 and 50 years of age who do not have a verified disability and are not caretakers for children or disabled adults fall into the category called Able Bodied Adults Without Dependents (ABAWDs). ABAWDs are limited to three months of food assistance unless they are working or participating in approved training programs at least 80 hours a month. 

To apply for food stamps, would-be participants must go to their state’s application web site or pick up a paper application from a government office. The application will ask about the people in the home, their assets and income, and their expenses. It will also ask if anyone in the home is pregnant or disabled. The application will make oblique or direct threats about the penalties of lying on the application, which can include a lifetime ban from food assistance.

Based on things like the state budget, household income and expenses, pregnancy and disability status, history of incarceration, and age of applicants, the state will deny or approve the application. If an application is approved, then the state will set a benefits amount for that household for a period of time, often six months. Participants will have to reapply continuously to remain on benefits, as they are set to expire without that active effort.

Food assistance comes in the form of reloadable debit cards. At the beginning of the month or fiscal period the new funds appear and can be used. If someone is very frugal and doesn’t use their entire allotment, the remaining balance will roll over to the next month. If someone spends their entire balance before the month is up, then they don’t get more until the next month. This is why legislative efforts to ban certain foods from purchase are purely punitive. The average elderly person living alone receives less than $150 in food stamps assistance each month. If Grandpa chooses to spend his entire budget on a lobster, steak, and candy smorgasboard he eats in one day or if Grandpa chooses to carefully spend no more than $5 a day on food, it makes no difference to the state or to (other) taxpayers. (Everyone pays taxes. Income tax is not the only kind).

I hope at this point of my essay you’re pretty sold on the idea that SNAP is a program worth supporting and funding. But just in case, I’ll take the time to mention that the rate of food stamp fraud is incredibly low.  Only 1% of food stamps are trafficked or exchanged for money or non-food goods. Even still, the USDA is incredibly aggressive in preventing and prosecuting fraud.

USDA and the Obama administration are actively working on behalf of American taxpayers to protect the federal investment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and make sure the program is targeted towards those families who need it the most. USDA aggressively acts to control trafficking by using SNAP purchase data to identify suspicious transaction patterns, conducting undercover investigations, and collaborating with other investigative agencies.

So SNAP is primarily going to children, elderly, and their households. SNAP has limits in place to prevent people capable of feeding themselves from relying on the program. SNAP has one of the lowest rates of fraud of any federal program. But more than that, SNAP is an economically sound program. Every dollar of food stamp spending puts $1.50 (or more, estimates vary by state and year) into the retail economy. According to the Department of Agriculture, each $1 Billion of retail food sales supported by SNAP creates 3,300 farming jobs.

Yet despite how successful the program is when adequately funded – at feeding people who are hungry, at preventing poverty from worsening, at keeping people on the economic margins from losing their homes – Republican and Democratic politicians attack the program and the people who rely on it. In 1996, President Bill Clinton and a bipartisan Congress instituted the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act which greatly reduced benefit amounts and required work to receive them. This act was in large part an effort by a Republican led Congress to encourage two-parent households and discourage the existence of single mothers. In more recent years, Republicans in Congress passed a budget which would reduce funds to SNAP by $125 Billion over ten years.

I will close with a personal note. I receive food stamps. They are the difference between paying my utilities and not, between going hungry and not, between feeding my child nothing but the cheapest most nutritionally depleted foods and not. That small tiny cushion of guaranteed food is a suicide deterrent. Being able to save up for tiny treats out of my food budget without having to take away from my housing/utilities/emergencies/medicine/childcare budget lets me do something nice for myself, in a world where I don’t often get to do that. I’m poor enough that splurging on $2.50 for a bottle of heavily sweetened coffee is an economic risk, but as long as I stay within my food stamp budget, I can buy as many coffees as I want. I can buy my son a birthday cake. I can have a Christmas dinner. Food stamps give me the tiniest fraction of safety and joy that people who are not in poverty take for granted. Knowing I can feed my family helps me sleep at night. It’s not just food. It’s dignity.

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