Five benefits that SNAP delivers

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January 11, 2016

Last week, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush released a plan to end the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, and replace it with new federal “Right to Rise” grants that states could use to pay for programs to assist lower-income families. Without more details, it’s impossible to assess how these new grants would provide benefits to eligible families, but SNAP has successfully provided support to millions of Americans over its 50-plus year history so replacing the program carries its own risks. Here are five ways in which SNAP has helped families reduce food insecurity and supported the country’s most vulnerable citizens.

  1. SNAP reduces poverty. Research shows that SNAP reduces food insecurity, and also helps lift people out of poverty. As part of the newly released book SNAP Matters, in which leading scholars examine the role and impact of the program, Laura Tiehen and her colleagues examined how adding SNAP benefits to family income affects the number of people who would otherwise fall under the official federal poverty measure. They found that in 2011, an additional 3.9 million people would have fallen into poverty without SNAP.

    The program’s impact was even more pronounced when the researchers used the Census Bureau’s supplemental poverty measure (SPM), an alternative metric that adjusts the official pov­erty measure by taking into account many government programs designed to assist low-income families and individuals, and certain expenses from cash income. Using the SPM, the researchers estimated that 4.6 million people were lifted out of poverty by the purchasing power of SNAP benefits.

    Other research suggests that SNAP can improve long-term health and well-being. Hilary Hoynes and her colleagues, for example, examined data from the original rollout of the food stamp program in the 1960s and 1970s and found that access to food stamps in childhood led to a significant reduction in the incidence of obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes decades later.

  2. SNAP reduces food insecurity. The rate of US food insecurity jumped significantly at the beginning of the Great Recession and, despite some progress toward economic recovery, has not abated since that time. In 2014, 48.1 million people—about one in six Americans—lived in food-insecure households, defined as households that reported low diet quality and variety and low food intake. But without SNAP, rates of food insecurity would be even higher: our colleagues Caroline Ratcliffe and Signe-Mary McKernan have estimated that receiving SNAP reduces the likelihood of being food insecure by roughly 30 percent.

    Food insecurity can interfere with normal childhood development, and increases the likelihood of poor health outcomes in both children and adults. Failing to address food insecurity in a focused, energetic manner puts our future workforce and health as a nation at risk—and we already have some of the worst health outcomes among many other high-income countries.

  3. SNAP serves our country’s most vulnerable citizens. Close to 70 percent of SNAP participants are in families with children; more than one-quarter are in households with seniors or people with disabilities. In addition, about two-thirds of recipients are not expected to work because they are children, elderly, or disabled. How likely is it that overburdened and economically distressed states will find the resources and the political will to protect those who are least able to advocate for themselves?

  4. SNAP supports work. While households must meet specific income tests to qualify for the program, participants can and do participate in the labor force. Between 2000 and 2013, the number of households receiving SNAP benefits while working more than tripled, reaching 7.1 million. And most households that receive SNAP include someone who works: Among households with at least one working-age, non-disabled adult, more than half work while receiving SNAP and more than 80 percent work in the year before or the year after receiving benefits. SNAP can be an important supplement to income for those who a struggling with inadequate wages.

  5. SNAP gives states flexibility in administering the program, even as it protects recipients with consistent federal requirements. The federal government pays for SNAP benefits for anyone who is eligible, but the program is administered by the states, which can modify who is eligible for benefits and how households apply to the program.

    In contrast, the shift to a state block grant approach for the Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) program in the mid-1990s eventually resulted in less assistance to the very families who may need it most. Those policy changes converted cash welfare assistance from a federal program to block grants and states ultimately shifted funds away from assistance to eligible families; in 2014, only 23 percent of families in poverty received cash benefits from TANF, down from 68 percent in 1996. During roughly this same period, the number of Americans living in extreme poverty (defined as living on less than $2 per person per day) rose dramatically, increasing 130 percent between 1996 and 2011.

    Researchers Luke Shaefer and Kathryn Edin estimate that the SNAP program helped buffer the growth in extreme poverty; when SNAP benefits are counted as income, extreme poverty rose only 67 percent, but the domestic safety net after welfare reform was not sufficient to ameliorate the most significant levels of deprivation.

There are far too many families without work or in low-paying jobs without enough food to eat. We are eager to see real long-term solutions that focus on policies that would give Americans a fair chance to achieve what families most want: a good education, a reliable job, safe neighborhoods, and strong schools for our children. We don’t have enough details to know whether Bush’s proposal would provide more or less support for low-income Americans, but the experience suggests that letting states run such programs on their own eventually results in less support for those who need it. 

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