The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly called food stamps) is the federal government’s largest food assistance program. It is also one of it’s most successful, not that the average American realizes its success. In 2012, the most recent year for which I could find statistics, SNAP prevented 10.3 million people from falling into poverty, 4.9 million of whom were children, and lifted an additional 5.2 million people out of deep poverty, including 2.1 million children. In addition to aiding people at or below the poverty line, SNAP benefits provide a boost to the economy. A USDA study, corroborated by work done by Mark Zandi, of Moody’s Economy.com, found that every SNAP dollar spent generates from $1.70-$1.80 in GDP increase. Finally, the SNAP program is very efficiently run, with 90-95% of funding going directly to food assistance, and experiences very low fraud rates, roughly 1% of benefits. If SNAP is so successful, why does the average American not realize its success and why is there a desire among many politicians to restructure the program and reduce its funding? I can not answer the second part of that question definitively, but I can suppose that the average American does not know about the success of the SNAP program because several myths about how the program is run and who benefits exist and little has been done to dispel those myths.
Myth: Individuals receiving SNAP benefits are unemployed, able-bodied adults, who are predominantly people of color or immigrants.
Some of that statement is correct. Most individuals who receive SNAP benefits do not work, but not because they are lazy or gaming the system. Almost half (44%) of the individuals who receive SNAP are children. The elderly and disabled comprise another 20 percent, making two thirds of SNAP recipients individuals who would never be counted in any unemployment statistic. Furthermore, almost 90% of all households getting SNAP benefits contain either a child under the age of 18, a person over the age 60 or a disabled person. Additionally, in more than half of households receiving SNAP benefits, at least one person is steadily employed and in over 80% of households receiving SNAP benefits at least one person worked either in the year before or the year after receiving benefits. Concerning households containing an able bodied adult without dependents (ABAWD), exemptions allowing an extension in the amount of time they can receive SNAP benefits expired in most areas of the country in 2016. These individuals are now restricted to only three months of SNAP benefits during any 36 month period when they are not employed or participating in a work or training program for at least 20 hours per week.
As for the ethnic breakdown of individuals receiving SNAP, approximately 40% of those receiving benefits are white, 25% are African-American and 10% are Hispanic. In 2010, only approximately 7% of individuals receiving SNAP benefits were foreign-born individuals: 3% were naturalized citizens, 3% were legal, permanent residents, and about 1% were refugees. I will address the extent to which immigrants receive SNAP benefits later in this post.
Myth: Individuals receive SNAP benefits for years and years.
The SNAP program, unlike Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF, also referred to as welfare), does not have a life-time limit. Consequently if an individual wishes to reapply for benefits every 3-6 months, his/her household can receive benefits as long as they qualify, so in theory someone could receive SNAP benefits his entire life. In reality, over half of individuals receiving SNAP benefits stop receiving benefits within 36 months. One third of those receiving SNAP benefits no longer need the assistance within a year of initially receiving benefits. The only exception, as already mentioned, are unemployed able bodied adults without dependents who can only receive benefits for 3 months in any given 36 month period.
Myth: Many of the people receiving SNAP benefits are undocumented immigrants.
Undocumented immigrants are not now and have never been eligible to receive any form of government assistance, including SNAP benefits. Children born in the United States to parents who are undocumented immigrants could, in certain circumstances, be eligible for benefits; however, the household would only receive the amount of benefit appropriate for the number of American born residents. Any undocumented immigrant living in that household would not be counted in determining the benefit amount. Furthermore, with regard to documented immigrants, they are eligible for SNAP benefits only after they have resided in the United States for 5 years. The only exceptions to the five year rule are documented immigrants who are refugees, asylees, or veterans or active-duty military personnel.
Myth: The amount of money recipients receive in SNAP benefits is sizeable and these benefits are easy to receive.
The SNAP program is a means tested aid program, which means that benefits are provided only to individuals or households which qualify. Consequently, to receive SNAP benefits, individuals must apply and provide all required documentation of annual income level, deductions and household composition. The application process must be completed every 3-6 months in order to continue receiving benefits. To put that into perspective, imagine having to renew your driver’s license at the DMV every 3-6 months, providing all the original documents, like birth certificates, marriage licenses and proof of residency, each time. Additionally, to be eligible to receive benefits, households have to have incomes lower than 130 percent to 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Line, depending on the state in which the applicant resides.
The dollar amount of SNAP benefits has decreased over recent years, with more cuts looming on the horizon. Currently, the average SNAP benefit is roughly $126 per person per month, which equals about $1.40 per person per meal. No one is living on delicacies on that amount. As a matter of fact, one third of households receiving SNAP benefits still need to go to a food pantry to supplement their benefits.
Myth: SNAP dollars can be used to purchase anything.
SNAP benefits can only be used to purchase food items and plants and seeds used to grow food. These benefits can not be used to buy non food items, like personal care items, diapers, household paper products, pet food and certainly not any alcohol or tobacco product. Even though SNAP benefits are to be used for food, not all food is approved for purchase. For instance, no hot, ready to eat foods can be purchased with SNAP benefits. This means EBT cards can not be used in restaurants, including fast food chains, nor can they be used to purchase ready to consume items in the grocery store, like a rotisserie chicken. The SNAP Restaurant Meal Program, which is available in only a few states, allows disabled, elderly and homeless recipients of SNAP to purchase meals in approved restaurants using a SNAP EBT card. Fast food eateries, like McDonalds are not eligible to apply to participate in the SNAP Restaurant Meal Program, so no fast food may be purchased by any one with SNAP benefits. Finally, SNAP recipients can not purchase food items in just any store selling these items. They can only use their EBT cards in establishments which have applied and been approved as participating stores or restaurants.
Myth: Fraud and waste is widespread in the SNAP Program.
According to a 2016 USDA report, fraud within the SNAP program is quite low, about 1 percent. The incidence of fraud decreased significantly when plastic EBT cards began being used, instead of paper money. This switch made the selling of SNAP dollars for cash dollars, trafficking, much more difficult. In 2010 the Government Accounting Office determined that trafficking had decreased from 3.8 cents per benefits dollar to roughly 1 cent per benefit dollar, where it has continued to remain. The SNAP program also contains little waste, with 93% of its funding going directly to providing food aid.
No federal government assistance program is problem free and often benefits from review and adjustments. As programs go, however, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has proven itself to be successful at providing needed assistance to many while keeping fraud and waste at low levels. Every year the SNAP program helps keep millions out of poverty, while lifting even more out of deep poverty. As the program is currently administered, it responds well to the ups and downs of the economy, expanding to help more individuals in tough economic times and shrinking, like it has the past 2-3 years, when the economic outlook brightens. SNAP dollars carry the added bonus of providing a stimulus to local economies as well, since the spending of SNAP dollars generates an increase in the Gross Domestic Product. The proven success of the SNAP program makes one question why many politicians are eager to both restructure it, thereby making it less effective, and reduce its operating budget. This program is not broken. It does not need to be fixed; it needs to be funded!