White House Defends SNAP, But Who Will Define and Defend “Poverty”?

SNAP benefits are redeemable at most farmers markets, providing opportunities for access to fresh and wholesome foods.
     The White House’s Council of Economic Advisors recently released a report detailing an effective program that aims to feed the hungry while remediating the factors that contribute to and reinforce poverty. This program, though still limited, expands on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a federal government program more commonly known as ‘food stamps’.
A little history on SNAP
     SNAP, originally known as the Food Stamp Program, was introduced by the Food Stamp Act of 1964 and was introduced gradually at the county level. In 1974 it became a national program that has since improved food security and reduced poverty for millions of Americans. In 2008 it was renamed SNAP, and in fiscal year 2015 it has served an estimated average of 45.8 million individuals per month.
  • Benefits are federally funded
  • Eligibility rules and benefits are determined at the federal level even though the program itself is administered at state and local levels
  • SNAP is the largest most universal nutrition program that is broadly available to most low-income households
  • Eligibility being based on income and assets
  • Eligible households generally must have a gross monthly income between 130 percent of the official poverty guideline for their family size and income that fall below the poverty line
  • SNAP’s framework helps to maintain a minimum level of food consumption for low-income households
     From my experience with friends, family, and through my work in food systems, I’ve found SNAP to be a diversely taboo issue. Though used out of need – that need being both practical and economical to varying degrees of urgency, some are embarrassed to admit their use, others are proud of their ability to maximize utility of these resources, and others treat it as nothing more than a normal part of the order of their days. Conversely, those who do not use SNAP have expressed to me concerns about over use, abuse of the system, questions of its efficacy, and also plead that it is not enough – that more needs to be done to feed and support others.
     Our nation’s economic system and sociocultural climate engender this diversity of perspectives and feelings, but federally funded programs are a key means of support given the history upon which our current system has been built upon and the state of need in our country today.
     “Today 46.5 million Americans get SNAP benefits — on average about $125 a month per person to buy food from authorized retailers. The CEA report finds SNAP is best at doing what it’s intended to do: keep people from going hungry. But it also reduces poverty overall. According to the authors, in 2014 the program kept close to 5 million people out of poverty, 2 million of them kids.
     Children whose parents are in the program start to reap benefits before birth, the report notes. Access to SNAP increased birth weight and reduced neonatal mortality; later in life it was linked to a reduced incidence of obesity and diabetes, a higher IQ, better education and higher income. For adults, the program can free up money for preventive medical care. One study found participants have more medical checkups compared with low-income people who didn’t receive benefits.”
     Data and statistics aside, the importance of this program is clear – when we are fed and nourished, we are happier, healthier, and more productive as citizens and, more importantly, as human beings. Though the CEA’s report defends the program, it also highlights the limitations of the current program.
“The benefits don’t last through the month. When they run out, studies show, hospitalizations for hypoglycemia spike while kids’ test scores drop off” 
     If that doesn’t demonstrate a clear correlation to food and health, health and productivity, as well as productivity and opportunity, I don’t know what does. Hunger and poverty go hand-in-hand. This report, which demonstrates this fact, comes at a time when Congress has set out budget proposals that will cut the $73 billion program by 20% next year for an overhaul change of the program. This call to reform comes from the big price tag associated with the program, notwithstanding the fact that food insecurity rates and SNAP participation have not decreased to pre-recession rates.
“The pattern that we have seen over the past couple of years of losing the strong bipartisan support for both the efficacy of this program and the general principle that we shouldn’t be letting American families go hungry is troubling” – Luke Tate, a senior policy adviser on the White House Domestic Policy Council
     In 2014, more than half of all SNAP benefits went to households with incomes at or below half of the poverty line. Though this demonstrates aid being distributed to need, it does not account for households working to improve their economic means – those who are able to earn above the poverty line by working multiple jobs and/or long hours. SNAP participants increasingly consist of working families whose incomes fall short of the cut line making the program’s consistent and dependable access to food is no longer an option.
     This is interesting to me because SNAP is meant to alleviate both hunger and poverty, but when “poverty” is defined at the federal level and though this “level” may have been surpassed, that does not at all mean that hunger has been alleviated. Of course, there are other economic and employment factors at work, as well as cash assistance and other opportunities, but its seems to me that we need an overhaul change of what we conceive of as “poverty” in our country and a reevaluation of what we think of as being “too high” a price for providing food access to the “poor”.

One thought on “White House Defends SNAP, But Who Will Define and Defend “Poverty”?

  1. Thanks – having come to the food/farm side from the sustainable ag/ecology world I am always interested to learn more about federal policy and hunger programs. I appreciate your thoughts!


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