SNAP (the food stamp program) is protected from the across-the-board cuts that will soon kick in. But benefits will be cut anyway, come November, because Congress has twice raided the funds it provided for a temporary boost.
A family of three will lose at least $20 a month, according to new estimates by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Still-eligible families would lose considerably more under the Farm Bills the House Agriculture Committee and the full Senate passed last year.
Yet we now have new, credible evidence that food stamp benefits are already too low for a great many participating families. This, at any rate, is a reasonable inference from an analysis jointly produced by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council.
The core of the problem is the assumptions built into the Thrifty Food Plan — the collection of market baskets that provide the basis for setting food stamp benefits.
Basically, the TFP assumes that families will make many of their meals from scratch, using low-cost, processed ingredients — a stew of potatoes, carrots and cut up chuck roast, for example, or chili made from slow-cooked dried beans.
In other words, someone in the family will have plenty of time to go grocery shopping, with pauses and backtracks for price comparisons, and the time to peel, chop, braise, bake, etc.
The family will live relatively near a full-service grocery store. And it will have the transportation to get there — and home with bags full of groceries.
It will also live in an area where food costs are relatively low, since we know from previous studies that the bill for a TFP-based food selection in a high-cost city far exceeds the maximum food stamp benefit.
And — something the IOM panel doesn’t mention — the family will have a good-sized refrigerator with ample freezer space. We see this assumption in the recipes and tips the U.S. Department of Agriculture has published for “healthy, thrifty meals.”
The IOM panel concludes that the from-scratch assumption is “out of synch with the practices of most households today.” Surely true for the 62% of food stamp households with children who’ve got at least one working member.
The IOM panel doesn’t come to such firm conclusions about the other assumptions. It merely identifies factors USDA should examine in determining whether food stamp allotments are adequate.
This is what USDA asked for. What it will do with the answer remains to be seen.
What our federal policymakers should do seems to me obvious enough. Beating a dead horse here, I know, but they should first and foremost give up the notion of reducing the deficit by cutting food stamp benefits.
Though the recession and lingering labor market ills have driven SNAP spending upward, it’s expected to drop to nearly the same share of GDP — a common measure of federal spending –as it represented in 2007.
The total cost of our primary nutrition safety net would then be somewhere around one-third of one percent of the value of everything our economy produces.
Beyond this, our policymakers ought finally to come to grips with the fact that the TFP doesn’t provide a suitable basis for determining food stamp benefits.
We’ve got scads of evidence that a large number of recipients can’t stretch them till the end of the month — let alone purchase the foods they’d need for a healthful diet.
A fairly recent study for USDA found that food stamp households had used, on average, 90% of their monthly benefits by the end of the third week — this despite the boost that’s due to expire.
The latest reported results of an annual survey conducted for the agency show that nearly half of households that received food stamp benefits throughout 2011 experienced food insecurity, i.e., were at risk of hunger or even sometimes didn’t have enough food for everyone because they couldn’t afford it.
No wonder that, as Feeding America has reported, 58% of the people who regularly or recurrently visited the food pantries in its network were food stamp recipients.
The Food Research and Action Center has repeatedly recommended that food stamp benefits be based on USDA’s Low-Cost Food Plan instead of the TFP — for reasons fully explained in a report it issued last December.
FRAC offers some additional recommendations in a statement triggered by the IOM report, e.g., a change in the outdated assumption that eligible households can spend 30% of their own income to supplement their benefits.
Congress will presumably again address the need for a new Farm Bill this year. So it’s got an opportunity to go back to the drawing board and create a food stamp program that will, at long last, end hunger and malnutrition in this country.
At the very least, it should do no further harm. Doesn’t seem like a lot to ask, but in this political environment, it is.