The Center's work on 'Food Stamps' Issues

Food Pantries Expect Longer Lines as SNAP Limit Kicks in

April 14, 2015 at 10:42 am

“Around the country, food pantry directors are girding for an influx of hungry adults” as a three-month limit on SNAP (formerly food stamp) benefits for unemployed, childless adults returns in many areas, the New York Times reports.  We estimate that at least 1 million people will lose SNAP benefits in 2016 due to the return of the harsh three-month limit.

Childless, nondisabled adults are limited to three months of SNAP benefits in any 36-month period unless they are working half time or participating in a training program.  Many states have temporarily waived the three-month limit in recent years due to high unemployment.  But as the economy continues to recover and unemployment falls, fewer areas will qualify for waivers and more people will face the limit.

States and localities are not required to help the affected people find jobs or provide a place in a job training program that would allow them to keep benefits.  Very few do so, leaving it to the participants to find enough work or training to keep their benefits.

For every person lucky enough to find a qualified training or volunteering opportunity, many others can’t.  The Times cites a Maine woman whose training program to become a personal care aide doesn’t qualify her for continued benefits, which ended after the time limit returned.  “How do you expect people to live and feed themselves and survive with nothing?” she asks.

Maine isn’t the only state where many have lost benefits.  Wisconsin recently re-imposed the three-month limit, the New Republic reports, and food pantries there warn they may run out of food by next spring due to the expected surge in demand.

The consequences can be drastic.  As this infographic shows, those at risk of losing SNAP benefits are a diverse and extremely poor group.  (Click here for full image. Click here for printable version.)  The average income of childless, nondisabled adults on SNAP is just 19 percent of the poverty line, or $2,200 a year.

Congress can help by revising the three-month rule so that anyone willing and able to work could retain benefits.

Future SNAP Cuts Would Come on Top of Recent Cuts

March 31, 2015 at 12:29 pm

Policymakers considering SNAP cuts this year — the House budget calls for $125 billion in cuts over the next decade, for example — should remember that any future cuts would come on top of cuts that occurred recently or are occurring under current law.  Roughly 1 million unemployed, childless adults are slated to lose SNAP over the course of 2016 as a three-month limit on benefits returns in many areas.  And, as our new paper recaps, nearly every SNAP recipient experienced a benefit cut averaging 7 percent in November 2013 when the benefit boost in the 2009 Recovery Act expired.

Policymakers raised benefits in 2009, at the height of the Great Recession, recognizing SNAP’s proven effectiveness at providing economic stimulus and reducing hardship.  In a weak economy, every $1 increase in SNAP benefits generates about $1.70 in economic activity, Moody’s Analytics estimates.

The benefit boost helped millions of low-income families afford adequate food.  The share of households with “very low food security,” meaning they had to skip meals or take other steps because they couldn’t afford sufficient food, was expected to rise in 2009 due to the recession.  Yet it fell among households with incomes low enough to qualify for SNAP, while rising among somewhat better-off households (see chart).


The sudden benefit cut when the benefit increase expired on November 1, 2013 likely increased hardship for many struggling families.  Benefits fell by about $20 per household per month, on average — equivalent to ten meals a month.  The average benefit per person per meal fell from about $1.49 to just $1.38.

The benefit cut reduced total SNAP benefits by about $5 billion in fiscal year 2014.  Also, SNAP caseloads, which had grown between 2007 and 2011 due to the recession and lagging recovery, leveled off in 2012 and 2013 and then fell by about 2 percent in fiscal year 2014.  These two factors pushed down overall SNAP spending by about $6.3 billion (8 percent) in 2014.

A Congressional Budget Dictionary

March 27, 2015 at 10:03 am

Congressional Republicans are using complicated — and likely poll-tested — language to make their budget plans’ deep spending cuts and dramatic structural changes in key programs for low- and moderate-income people sound benign and even positive.

As Budget Committee member Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) noted before the plans’ release, “From the standpoint of a budget, the less words of the English language you use, the better off you are.”

While it’s common practice for lawmakers to use language that puts their plans in the best possible light, it’s important to understand exactly what they mean.  Here are three key “translations”:

The House budget summary says:
It will make Pell Grants, which help more than 8 million students from low- and modest-income families afford college, “permanently sustainable.”

This turns out to mean:
The House budget would institute sharp funding cuts in Pell Grants, which in turn would make it harder for millions of students to afford college at a time when those costs are rising quickly.  Over time, this likely would reduce economic opportunity and the readiness of the U.S. workforce.

The House budget summary says:
The budget would convert both the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Medicaid to “State Flexibility Funds.”  It states that this would give state governments “the power to administer [SNAP] in ways that best fit the needs of their communities with greater incentives to achieve better results,” and also would “empower state policymakers to tailor their Medicaid programs based on the unique challenges they face.”

This means:
The budgets would convert SNAP and much or all of Medicaid to “block grants,” with fixed — and sharply reduced — federal funding.

The programs would no longer respond automatically to increased need due to rising poverty and unemployment during economic downturns.  And the combination of block grants and big funding cuts would leave states having to figure out whose benefits to cut or terminate.  The magnitude of the cuts would leave them without good options.  The SNAP cuts would force states to shrink or eliminate food assistance for millions of low-income families, while the Medicaid cuts would force them to make eligibility and benefit cuts that would likely leave millions of beneficiaries uninsured or underinsured (on top of the loss of coverage that millions of poor Americans would face due to the House and Senate budget plans’ repeal of health reform and its Medicaid expansion).

Finally, sometimes even silence needs a translation.  The House and Senate budgets make no mention of extending crucial provisions of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC) for low- and modest-income working people now slated to expire at the end of 2017.

This means:
The plans would allow these provisions to expire,  thereby pushing more than 16 million people — including almost 8 million children — into or deeper into poverty and squandering the opportunity to help promote work, reduce poverty, and support children’s development.

Once you get beyond the euphemisms and flowery language, a clear agenda stands out in these plans:  shrinking government in substantial part through steep reductions in programs for low- and moderate-income Americans that, in turn, would lead to higher levels of poverty and inequality, less opportunity, and a future workforce that’s less able to compete with its counterparts overseas.

Learning What Works: SNAP’s New Employment and Training Demos

March 20, 2015 at 11:14 am

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Labor Secretary Thomas Perez today announced ten pilot projects — the result of a bipartisan agreement in the 2013 Farm Bill — that will test innovative approaches to encouraging and supporting employment among SNAP participants.  While modest in scope, the pilots show that Congress can collaborate around important issues like finding better ways to expand economic opportunity for low-income Americans.

During the Farm Bill debate, the Agriculture Committees took a hard look at SNAP’s job training program after the House adopted highly contentious work requirements.  Lawmakers realized that no one knew for certain what makes an effective SNAP employment and training (E&T) program.  Rather than adopt uninformed and highly risky changes that could end benefits to millions and reward states for doing so, Congress wisely created a robust demonstration project to test whether promising and innovative programs really do deliver.

The pilots represent a broad range of approaches, reflecting both regional economic circumstances and the diversity of people who turn to SNAP for food assistance.  The states receiving grants for the pilots are California, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington.  You can read more about them here.

Experimenting with new, and revising existing, approaches to SNAP’s work programs allow states to develop partnerships that will also last beyond the life of the pilots.  Equally important, the pilots will be rigorously evaluated to determine which parts of a state’s program increased employment and earnings and generated other positive family outcomes.

Key Programs Lay Building Blocks for Kids’ Success

March 16, 2015 at 10:47 am

As Congress begins its budget deliberations, lawmakers should be concerned not only with how they’ll allocate funds next year but also with the long-term implications of their decisions.  Cuts to effective programs that ensure children start life on a positive path, such as WIC and home visiting, and those that help families meet their basic needs, like SNAP, rental assistance, and Medicaid, could prove costly in the long run.

A compelling and growing body of scientific research indicates that children living in unusually stressful situations (such as not having enough food to eat or living in unstable housing) may experience chronic stress levels severe enough (i.e., “toxic stress”) to damage the developing neural connections in their brains, impeding their ability to succeed in school and develop the social and emotional skills they will need to function well as adults.  These early adverse experiences also can undermine the body’s cardiovascular and immune systems, resulting in costly health conditions in adulthood such as diabetes or heart disease.

Jack Shonkoff, a key researcher on toxic stress, and his colleagues note in a recent American Academy of Pediatrics report that the scientific research not only shows the consequences of toxic stress but also points to areas that can help lay the foundation for healthy development:

  • sound and appropriate nutrition that begins with the future mother’s preconception nutritional status;
  • safe and supportive environments that provide spaces free from toxins and fear, allow active exploration without significant risk of harm, and offer support for families raising young children; and
  • a stable and responsive environment of relationships that provide young children with consistent, nurturing, and protective interactions with adults to enhance their learning and help them adapt and respond to life events in a healthy way.

As Shonkoff says:

Sound health in early childhood provides a foundation for the construction of sturdy brain architecture and the achievement of a broad range of skills and learning capacities. Together these constitute the building blocks for a vital and sustainable society that invests in its human capital and values the lives of its children.

This research provides a compelling case for investing in children, especially when they are very young and their life experiences are fostering — or hindering — their brain development.  Cutting programs that make a positive difference in children’s lives will cost kids, their families, and the economy much more than it saves in the years to come.