When I learned that the House Agriculture Committee planned a top-to-bottom review of SNAP (the food stamp program), I thought it was a setup for legislation along the lines the right-wing majority had already teed up.
But the report the Committee recently issued is remarkably even-handed—and very informative. It does flag problems, including some that right-wingers have cited in attacks on our safety net generally. But they don’t support a major overhaul.
In fact, they bolster arguments against the sort that House Speaker Paul Ryan and fellow travelers have proposed. Here are a few of examples.
SNAP Gives States a Lot of Flexibility
The report details the many choices SNAP affords state agencies. Most have to do with administration—how often they’ll require beneficiaries to prove they’re still eligible, how swiftly they’ll adjust benefits when income changes, etc.
But some are choices that can make more low-income people eligible, within the confines set by federal law. States may, for example, opt for so-called broad-based categorical eligibility, which opens the door to families whose incomes, before allowable deductions (but not after) exceed the standard cut-offs.
This, says the report, is the most significant of all state options. It does, however, note that states may also opt to exclude the value of certain assets that would otherwise disqualify them—the value of a car, for example, money in the bank.
This too makes more people eligible — and more able to both weather emergencies and achieve greater economic independence.
SNAP Affords Ample Room for Civil Society Organizations
Ryan says that the federal government has “crowded out civil society,” discouraging community-level organizations from engaging in efforts to help the poor.
The report emphatically argues that combating hunger in our country requires the participation of federal programs, as well as a range of local and state-level organizations.
It cites examples of the ways that charitable organizations and federal safety net programs work together, e.g., nonprofit food banks, supported in part by the Emergency Food Assistance Program.
And it quotes testimony from a food bank CEO on the need to keep federal nutrition programs strong so that the dollars from private donations can support innovations.
SNAP Is Not a Hammock
The report embraces the unobjectionable view that work is the best pathway out of poverty. But it cites data showing that nearly two-thirds of SNAP participants can’t be expected to work—because they’re too young, too old or too disabled.
Household-level data do suggest that more of the remaining participants could work, but didn’t during an average month in 2015—or rather, could work if the labor market had enough jobs available and they the skills to qualify.
The report could have veered into time limits at this point. It instead finds two areas where states could improve their programs within the law as-is.
First, some need to do a better job of enforcing SNAP work requirements, it says. The requirements it refers to aren’t those that have caused many thousands of able-bodied adults without dependents to lose their benefits.
They’re applicable to all unemployed adults who aren’t exempt for various reasons, e.g., because they’re responsible for caring for a disabled family member.
These presumptively employable adults must register for work, accept a job if offered and not quit voluntarily without good cause or reduce their working hours below 30 per week. So there’s no penalty if they can’t find a job offering a set minimum number of hours.
The report also strongly suggests that some states — or counties within states — don’t have SNAP employment and training programs, though all receive E&T funds.
“Most,” it says, quoting testimony, “have consisted of a referral to a job search program.” So it’s agencies that need to shape up, not SNAP beneficiaries.
The report provides examples of effective programs and hopefully cites pilots the current Farm Bill is funding.
It strongly implies that effective programs combined with “reasonable requirements, strongly enforced” will suffice to engage SNAP participants in activities leading to gainful employment.
“There is little evidence that harsh provisions are necessary,” it says, again quoting testimony.
On the other hand, the report does suggest that SNAP, combined with other safety net programs can discourage participants from working their way up the income scale because what they gain in pay is offset by what they lose in benefits.
To this extent then, it adopts Ryan’s view that the multiplicity of “welfare” programs, each operating under its own rules creates what’s often referred to as a cliff. For him, this proves that they’re a “poverty trap.”
The report instead notes that states may convert the cliff into downward slope by providing transitional SNAP benefits when families leave Temporary Assistance for Needy Families because they’ve found paying work.
And it includes one important data point that argues against the view that SNAP participants choose to remain poor or near-poor rather than lose their benefits. Specifically, most participants remain in the program for, at most, two years.
The Ag Committee Chair clearly aimed to build bridges between his conservative and progressive colleagues in preparation for the next reauthorization of SNAP.
“You will find nothing in this report that suggests gutting SNAP or getting rid of a program that does so much for so many people,” he and the chair of the Nutrition Subcommittee tell us in their prefatory statement.
At least some of us won’t find everything we’d like to have seen. For example, the report touches only tangentially on the adequacy of SNAP benefits, though it includes a section on promoting healthful eating.
But it does, as the statement says, show “there is common ground to be found both in understanding the needs of the population SNAP serves, and in working collaboratively to improve SNAP.”