The Center's work on 'Food Stamps' Issues

Greenstein Testifies on SNAP

February 25, 2015 at 4:44 pm

Testifying at a House Agriculture Committee hearing this morning, CBPP President Robert Greenstein discussed SNAP’s track record of eliminating severe hunger and malnutrition in the United States, as well as its growth in response to economic conditions and need.  His oral remarks are below; click here for his written testimony.

Mr. Chairman, thank you for inviting me and for the opportunity to be here today. I’ve been working on this program for over 40 years, and had the privilege at one point in the late 1970s to serve as the Administrator of the Food and Nutrition Service.

I think Doug [Douglas Besharov, professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, who also testified] and I agree that SNAP has played the central role in eliminating severe hunger and malnutrition in this country.  This led former Senator Bob Dole to call it the nation’s most important social program advance since Social Security.

And over the years, SNAP has taken advantage of modern technology and business practice to become more efficient and accurate.  Its error rate is now at an all-time low.  Fewer than 1 percent of benefits are issued to ineligible households.

SNAP’s benefits are relatively modest.  They average about $1.40 per person per meal.

Benefits are also highly targeted by need.  92 percent of SNAP benefits go to households with monthly incomes below the poverty line, 57 percent to families below half the poverty line.

SNAP can help families bridge temporary hardship until they get back on their feet.  Between 2008 and 2012, about half of all new entrants to SNAP participated for one year or less and then left the program.

SNAP also appears to have important long-term positive effects on children.  A recent study [based on data from the rollout of SNAP in the late 1960s and early 1970s] found that children who had received SNAP had much higher high school graduation rates and better health — including less obesity — in adulthood than comparable low-income children who didn’t have SNAP.  And women who’d had access to SNAP in childhood had higher earnings and lower rates of welfare receipt in adulthood.

Now, SNAP participation and costs have grown in recent years.  Both CBO [the Congressional Budget Office] and other analysts have found the biggest reason by far is the economy.  The next most important reason has been an increase in the share of eligible families — especially low-income working families — who participate.

In 2002, only 43 percent of eligible low-income working families participated.  In 2012, 72 percent did.

Congress and the Bush and Clinton Administrations concluded that some aspects of SNAP were making it unnecessarily hard for working-poor families to enroll.  They concluded that if families leaving welfare for low-paid work lost their SNAP benefits at the same time, and had difficulty feeding their families, that would be contrary to welfare-reform goals.  Most of the policy changes, for example, that Doug lists in his testimony and were made since 2000 were made to better serve low-income working families.

As this chart indicates, SNAP has made major progress here — the share of SNAP families who are on welfare has plummeted; the share who work has increased pretty dramatically.

This brings me to the biggest cause of SNAP’s recent growth — the deep problems in the economy, from which we’re only starting now to make substantial progress.  Some people look at the growth in SNAP caseloads and wonder if they’ll ever come down.

But the best assessment is that as the recovery finally reaches ordinary families, caseloads and costs will drop significantly.

That is CBO’s assessment.  Caseloads have dropped by about 1.5 million people since the end of 2012 and now stand at about 46 million; CBO projects they will drop to below 33 million over the coming decade.

And, when budget analysts, whether they are conservative or liberal, ask if federal programs are growing in ways that add to the nation’s fiscal challenges, they ask if program costs are rising as a share of the economy — growing as a share of GDP.  CBO’s projection for SNAP is that its costs will decline as a share of the economy as the economic recovery continues, and by 2020, be all of the way back to their 1995 level, as a share of GDP.

Finally, does SNAP discourage people from working?  The conclusion of a team of leading researchers who examined all research in the field is that SNAP does not pose significant work disincentives and its effect on the amount that people work is small.

Indeed, Census data show that of people who worked before enrolling in SNAP, 96 percent then worked in the year after beginning to get SNAP benefits, which suggests turning to SNAP does not lead people to cease working.

SNAP’s work requirements are stronger than is often realized.  SNAP has the single toughest work requirement of any federal program — people aged 18-50 who are not raising children are limited to three months of SNAP out of every three years, unless they’re working at least half time.  Job search does not count; if you can’t find a job, you’re out after three months.  This requirement was suspended in much of the country when the economy was weak, but it’s now coming back.  At least 1 million such people will be removed from the program between now and the end of 2016.

Now, that doesn’t mean that SNAP can’t do better in helping people gain jobs, and the recent Farm Bill establishes demonstration projects to learn how to do that more effectively.

In conclusion, SNAP is a lifeline for millions of people.  The program can be improved.  But it’s worth noting that when the Simpson-Bowles commission and the Domenici-Rivlin deficit reduction task force called for substantial budget cuts, they both excluded cuts in SNAP, given its strong track record in improving access to food — and reducing poverty and hardship — for millions of our less-fortunate fellow Americans.

Thank you.

SNAP Spending Falling, as Expected

February 9, 2015 at 2:50 pm

SNAP (formerly food stamps) spending has begun to decline as a share of the economy, as the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and other experts expected, our newly updated report shows.

  • SNAP spending fell as a share of the economy in 2014, after stabilizing in 2012 and 2013. Spending fell by just over a tenth in 2014 as a share of gross domestic product or GDP (see graph).  SNAP spending also fell in 2014 by nearly a tenth after adjusting for inflation.
  • SNAP is not part of the long-term budget problem. As the economic recovery continues and fewer low-income people qualify for SNAP, CBO expects SNAP spending to fall further in future years, returning to its 1995 level as a share of GDP by 2020. Thus, while CBO recently projected that the overall gap between federal spending and revenues will grow starting in 2018, SNAP is not contributing to this problem; CBO also forecasts that SNAP will decline as a share of the economy over the next ten years.
  • The expiration of the 2009 Recovery Act’s benefit increase contributed to the spending drop in 2014. The expiration, on November 1, 2013, lowered average benefits by about 7 percent (about $450 million a month) in the rest of fiscal year 2014.
  • The number of SNAP participants has started to fall. SNAP caseloads grew significantly between 2007 and 2011 as the recession and lagging economic recovery led more low-income households to qualify and apply for help.  SNAP caseload growth slowed substantially in 2012 and 2013, however, and caseloads fell by about 2 percent in fiscal year 2014.

For more trends and information on SNAP, check out our chart book.

Maine’s SNAP Cutoff Foreshadows Tough Times for Poor Jobless Workers

February 4, 2015 at 1:16 pm

Maine cut several thousand people off SNAP (food stamps) this month after re-imposing a time limit on benefits for childless adults who aren’t working at least 20 hours per week — regardless of how hard they’re looking for a job.  The move foreshadows tough times for very poor unemployed workers across the country who can’t find work as the time limit returns in more areas.  Up to 1 million low-income unemployed adults risk losing SNAP benefits over the course of 2016.

The 1996 welfare law, which established the three-month limit, allowed states to waive it temporarily in areas with high unemployment.  Most governors have used this flexibility in recent years to suspend the time limit in response to the severe impact of the recession.  As the economy recovers and unemployment falls, though, more people will face the time limit.

Maine Governor Paul LePage chose to re-impose the time limit even though Maine’s unemployment was high enough to continue waiving it.  Some areas, like Piscataquis County, still struggle with unemployment rates over 8 percent.

The loss of SNAP benefits can have a serious impact.  People subject to the three-month limit have average monthly income of about 19 percent of the poverty line (about $2,200 per year for a household of one in 2014) and typically don’t qualify for other income support.

The time limit is especially harsh because state and local agencies don’t need to help the affected people find jobs or provide a place in a job training program that would allow them to keep benefits.

Unfortunately, the President’s 2016 budget doesn’t propose modifying the time limit to make it fairer, such as by requiring state SNAP agencies or local workforce programs to offer a work or training slot to people facing the loss of food benefits.  The budget boosts SNAP job training funds by $25 million per year, but that’s only enough, at best, to provide a place for one in ten people at risk of losing assistance.

Congress still has time to address this problem by reconsidering the harsh time limit and establishing a more reasonable work requirement.

Who Are the People Who Will Lose SNAP Next Year?

January 13, 2015 at 3:36 pm

This infographic summarizes basic facts about unemployed childless adults receiving SNAP (formerly food stamps), roughly 1 million of whom will be cut off SNAP over the course of 2016 — regardless of how hard they are looking for work — as a three-month time limit on benefits returns in many areas.  (Click here for full image. Click here for printable version.)

Congress should revise the harsh three-month cutoff to better accomplish its stated goal of testing individuals’ willingness to work.  If it doesn’t, some of the nation’s poorest people will lose an average of $150 to $200 a month in benefits.  This means food banks, pantries, and soup kitchens can expect a sustained increase in food requests because “there are not very many options to get help when you need food,” the operations director of a Bozeman, Montana, food bank explains.  Also, homeless shelters may see an increase in need as some people forgo rent payments to buy food.

1 Million People Facing Cutoff of SNAP Benefits Next Year

January 7, 2015 at 12:18 pm

Roughly 1 million of the nation’s poorest people will be cut off SNAP (formerly food stamps) over the course of 2016 — even if they’re looking for a job but can’t find one —because a three-month time limit on benefits for unemployed childless adults who aren’t disabled will return in many geographic areas.

As our new report explains, the affected people will lose an average of $150 to $200 per person per month.  For this group, that’s a dramatic loss.  People subject to the three-month limit have average monthly income of about 19 percent of the poverty line (about $2,200 per year for a household of one in 2014), and they typically don’t qualify for other income support.

Part of the 1996 welfare law, the three-month limit hasn’t been in effect in most states in recent years because states can waive it temporarily in areas with high unemployment.  But as unemployment rates fall, fewer areas will qualify for waivers, even though many people —including many lower-skilled workers — who want to work still can’t find jobs.  People subject to the three-month limit generally have limited education and skills and limited job prospects.

Some states that have already imposed the time limit have seen SNAP caseloads drop sharply — much faster than the slow decline they’d experienced due to an improving economy.  (In this economic recovery, like previous ones, SNAP caseloads have fallen as unemployment has improved.)  In Kansas, for example, the caseload decline three months after the time limit returned was more than triple the previous trend (see graph).

Unemployed childless adults can continue to receive SNAP beyond three months by participating in a work or training program for at least 20 hours a week.  But very few states provide these programs to all who need them.  As a result, someone who wants to work but can’t find a job, and is willing to participate in job training but has no opportunity to do so, will lose his or her SNAP benefits after three months.

Congress still has time to mitigate the harm.  It could, for example, require a state to offer a job or training position or other work activity — or require job search — for all adults subject to the limit and continue benefits for all who comply.  Without any such action, food banks, pantries, and soup kitchens can expect a sustained increase in food requests from this large and widespread loss of assistance.

What’s more, community groups and service providers such as homeless shelters, low-income veterans’ groups, job training centers, and health clinics count on SNAP as a resource for their clients.  Those losing SNAP may be forced to choose between food and other necessities, like rent or medicine.

It’s not too early for states, community partners, and nonprofits to start preparing for the return of the three-month limit, which will have a big impact on the people they serve.