The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
February 22, 2018

SNAP’s model is working, but to further reduce food insecurity, it needs a boost—not a funding cut

February 22, 2018

The administration’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal includes a 27 percent cut ($213 billion) to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) over the next 10 years and a major shift in how the program operates. That drastic funding cut could threaten the program that aims to reduce hunger and food insecurity by supplementing the purchasing power of low-income families and has removed 8.4 million people from poverty.

Rather than slashing SNAP funding, we should find ways to improve the program, which served more than 42 million people through approximately $64 billion in assistance in 2017. SNAP reduces food insecurity and improves long-term health outcomes for low-income people, especially working families. But it isn’t perfect.

Urban’s recent analysis found that the maximum SNAP benefit per meal of $1.86 doesn’t cover the cost of a low-income meal in 99 percent of the 3,108 US continental counties (including Washington, DC). The average cost of a low-income meal is $2.36, 27 percent higher than the SNAP maximum benefit. On a monthly basis, the maximum SNAP benefit falls short of meeting meal costs by $46.50 per person.

snap benefit by county type

Although most families in SNAP use the benefits to supplement their food budget, 4 in 10 households in the program have zero net income (either because they have no household income or because their qualifying income is reduced to zero after accounting for eligible expense deductions) and qualify for the maximum benefit, meaning SNAP is their only source of money for food.

Local food prices vary across the US, but the current maximum SNAP allotment is the same no matter where a recipient lives. This trend affects all types of communities in all geographic regions, making it a concern for all policymakers and stakeholders.

Amid proposals calling for reduced SNAP funding and projected revenue shortfalls in the wake of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 that might increase pressure on safety net programs, we should focus the policy discussion on whether the current program design maximizes its ability to reduce hunger and food insecurity among families in need of assistance.

Jennifer Donald, whose family receives money from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), makes dinner with her daughter Jayla, 10, in Philadelphia. Photo by Matt Rourke/AP.

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