A Budget Built on Myths

Over the past two weeks I have read analyses and responses to the President’s 2019 proposed budget from a variety of sources, including organizations which report the news, conduct policy review, advocate for the poor, and help provide food for those who are food insecure.  All of these organizations and news outlets have come to the same conclusion–this budget will be disastrous to poor Americans.  Since my blog focuses on food insecurity, I am going to limit my discussion of the proposed budget to changes which will affect aid to those who are food insecure; however, the budget’s proposed cuts to the federal housing assistance program, Medicaid, and other programs comprising our social safety net will undoubtedly further negatively impact these same households.  I will mostly focus on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which is slated to have its budget cut by $213 billion over the next ten years, or 30 percent.   This budget cut to SNAP would be achieved by drastically restructuring benefit delivery, a change affecting a majority of participating SNAP households.  Additional proposed changes in benefits and eligibility requirements would make at least 4 million peopleelderly hands ineligible for any SNAP benefits.  These proposed cuts will affect SNAP participants across all groups, including the elderly, those with disabilities, low income working families, children and veterans.

If this budget is approved, the largest cut to SNAP would occur through a dramatic restructuring in the delivery of benefits.  In this restructuring $260 billion (over 10 years) will be shifted from benefits paid directly to households for the purchase of food, back to the government.  Here is how the restructuring will work.  Under the proposal, households which receive $90 or more in SNAP benefits each month (80% of all SNAP recipients) would see half of their benefit amount shift from direct EBT funds, which are then used by the recipient to purchase food, to a box of pre-selected, non-perishable food worth the same dollar amount including, shelf stable milk, cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans, and canned fruits and vegetables.*  The cost for the purchase food, assembly, and distribution of these boxes, called America’s Harvest Box, is budgeted to cost $130 billion, or half of the money being shifted from direct benefits.  The remaining $130 billion of the held back funds would be eliminated from the program, comprising the majority of the USDA’s estimated ten year SNAP savings.  This change would affect almost 90% of SNAP participants, or approximately 34 million people in 16 million households in 2019.

The cuts to SNAP do not end with this restructuring though.  The President’s 2019 budget proposes an additional $85 billion in cuts to SNAP over a ten year period.  For example, the budget proposes raising the upper age limit for unemployed able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs), who are limited to only 3 months of SNAP benefits, from the current age of 49 to age 62.  Another proposed change would be to cap SNAP benefits disabledat the level for a household of six, penalizing any households of more than six individuals.  This will greatly impact multi-generational households or households where two families have come together to pool their resources by sharing costs.  An additional proposed cut would be the elimination of the minimum benefit, ending benefits for roughly 2 million individuals, mostly low-income seniors and people with disabilities. These are just a few of the other areas the budget proposes to cut SNAP benefits.  SNAP, however, is not the only program assisting those who are food insecure targeted for cuts.

Like SNAP these other programs help all groups who are facing poverty and food insecurity.  For instance, the budget proposes the all but elimination of the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), which will impact seniors.  The CSFP distributes senior boxes, which provides meal boxes to low income seniors.  Additionally there are proposed cuts to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and school and summer lunch programs.  These cuts will greatly impact children and weaken programs which have been proven to not only lessen hunger, but infant eatingto improve the health and educational achievement of children.  The last cuts I want to mention are cuts to programs that assist with purchasing fresh produce at farmer’s markets, and nutritional education programs.  These cuts strike me as incredibly hypocritical as one of the main reasons for restructuring SNAP benefits to include the America’s Harvest Box was to ensure SNAP participants were purchasing healthy food with their benefits.  The America’s Harvest Box, however, contains no fresh produce and these cuts will reduce the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables individuals receiving assistance can purchase.

As I state above, the proposed cuts to these social safety net programs designed to assist the food insecure do not discriminate and will hurt all segments of the population receiving assistance.  This proposed budget reflects a clear misunderstanding about who the average SNAP participant actually is.*  I have come to the conclusion over the past few years of studying poverty issues and food insecurity, that many in this country, including a large number of politicians, believe that the average SNAP participant is someone who is lazy and doesn’t want to work.  They believe that person uses his or her benefits to buy junk food and sodas or steaks and other luxuries.  Furthermore, when they not making inappropriate food purchases, they are engaging in some sort of fraudulent activity with their SNAP benefits.  And all the while they are abusing the system, they are laughing at hard working Americans for providing their tax dollars to fund this program.  Ladies and gentlemen, this version of the average SNAP participant is a MYTH and before anyone starts to protest about some friend their brother knows, or a co-worker’s cousin or even their own deadbeat cousin, let me just say that I know there are those out there who abuse the system.  I have witnessed it myself.  But the number of farm workerparticipants I have witnessed who are truly struggling, working hard, and trying to do the right thing to get themselves and their families out of the situation they are in, vastly outweighs the handful of SNAP abusers I have encountered.

I grew up hearing that those in the United States who wanted to could pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and make a good life for themselves.  I was taught that in America if a person worked hard and played by the rules, he could rise up and attain the American Dream.  I have learned that this, too, is a MYTH.  Oh sure, the possibility does exist for an individual to start with very little, and with hard work and smart decisions, attain wealth.  I would just argue that there is more to that person’s story than just hard work and sacrifice, because I encounter individuals all the time who are working hard and sacrificing, but still live in poverty.  The truth is that it is against incredible odds that anyone is able to move out of poverty in the United States.  The social safety net in the Untied States contains gaping holes in its current state.  Maintaining the status quo will at best ensure that poverty numbers in the United States will remain at their current level.  If this budget were to pass, however, all bets are off.

* I will address this topic further in an upcoming blog post.


One Horrific Accident from a Nightmare

This past year, in addition to paying close attention to governmental proposals affecting the social safety net, I have also followed proposals concerning legal and undocumented immigrants.  For now, most of the proposals concerning the social safety net have not been enacted.  Unfortunately, the same can not be said for proposals affecting the statue of libertyimmigrant population, and although these policies are targeted at undocumented immigrants, the ripples of fear they have caused are moving through the qualified immigrant population as well.

Before I retell the narrative I have chosen this month I want to restate the regulations regarding immigrants and their ability to qualify for social safety net programs.  Most of these regulations have been firmly in place since the late 1990s, but some date back to the inception of the program.  Undocumented immigrants are not eligible for federal governmental assistance, like the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), not now, not ever.   Any children of undocumented immigrants who have been born in the United States, and are therefore US citizens, are, however, eligible for this assistance.  Just the children are eligible and the amount of assistance the household receives is only commensurate to the number of eligible children.  For instance if you have a family of 5: two undocumented parents, two undocumented children, and one child born in the U.S., the household would only receive SNAP benefits for one, not five, members of the household.  With the 1996 passage of Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (PRWORA), and subsequent legislation passed in 1998 and 2002, documented immigrants are eligible to receive benefits, but only after they have resided legally in the U.S. for 5 years.  There are some some exceptions to the 5 year waiting period for protected classes of documented immigrants, like refugees.  Furthermore, for all who receive assistance from TANF, whether documented immigrant or U.S. citizen, there is a lifetime limit of no more than 60 months of benefits, but that lifetime limit can vary from state to state with some states having a maximum 24 month lifetime limit on benefits.  In all states TANF recipients must get a job within 24 months of getting benefits to avoid reduction or termination of benefits.  The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program does not have a lifetime limit for benefits, except for Able-Bodied Adults without Dependents (AWBADS).

My point in explaining these rules is to convey that immigrants can not come to the United States and live off our government, especially those who come illegally, since they are ineligible to receive any assistance at all.  Even under the best of circumstances, immigrants must reside legally in the U.S. for 5 years to be eligible for any public assistance.  I do not intend to argue the pros and cons of immigrants coming to the United States, legally or otherwise, merely to discuss the reality for those who are currently here, living and working in our communities.  For undocumented immigrants, like the subjects of the following narrative, this is the reality they have been facing forstrawberry pickers years, maybe even decades.

The family whose story  I am going to tell consists of 2 undocumented immigrant parents and their children living in my greater community.  I did not meet this family personally, but a very trustworthy friend did and conveyed their circumstances to me.  While the parents are undocumented, all of the children were born in the United States, and are therefore American citizens.  The oldest child is 17, so that means this couple has been residing in the United States for at least 17 years, almost 2 decades, making ends meet without receiving public assistance, while contributing to our local economy.  They were able to do this because the father worked full-time and supplemented his take home pay by doing additional farm work.  The mother stayed home raising the children.  The kids are good students, and the 17 year old approached senior year with visions of attending college.

For almost 2 decades this arrangement worked for this family, until one day the father was killed in a horrific accident, witnessed by his children.  And just like that their life turned into a horrible nightmare.  Within a week of losing their husband and father, this family lost their housing.  The 17 year old, who had aspirations of attending college, now faced the potential of having to drop out of school and start working.  The mother did not know where to turn.  She feared going to any agency for help in securing the benefits for which her children were eligible due to their status as U.S. citizens.  She worried about drawing attention to her undocumented status, triggering her removal from her children who had just lost a parent, and her likely deportation.  When I decided I was going to write about this family, I went back to my friend to ask what had happened to them.  Sadly, I can not report any update.  My friend, unable to help them personally, referred them on to an agency better equipped to help.  I can only hope they were able to find some assistance.

wildfireUnfortunately, the heartbreaking story of this family is not an isolated event.  Last fall fires burned out of control in large areas of Sonoma and Napa counties in California, including business and residential areas in the city of Santa Rosa.  The countryside surrounding Santa Rosa is lovely wine country, but Santa Rosa itself is a large city, with tens of thousands of residents.  A wildfire in the vineyards on hills would harm the economy, but a wildfire within the city of Santa Rosa would cause devastation for thousands.  At the time of the fires, I didn’t stop to think who would suffer the most as a result of these fires, or that vastly different levels of suffering would even be experienced.  On reflection, I realize the immigrant population will experience a greater loss as a result of these fires.  Santa Rosa, like most California cities and towns, has a large immigrant population, both documented and undocumented.  These immigrants, who lost everything in these fires, can only receive governmental assistance if they meet the previously explained requirements.  Additionally, FEMA assistance, which is vital to help those experiencing a disaster put their lives back together, is only available for U. S. citizens, non-citizen nationals (Somoans), and qualified aliens (those living legally in the U.S. for at least 5 years) .  For the others, there will be no money for them to rebuild their lives after this disaster.

The story of this local immigrant family haunts me as does reading about the hundreds, if not thousands, of immigrant victims of the wildfires in Santa Rosa who do not qualify for public assistance.  Prior to these horrific events, these households were surviving without assistance from the federal government.  Now, ineligible for help, what are they to do?  Immigrants, qualified and undocumented, live in almost every community in our country.  They mostly work in low paying, back breaking or otherwise unpleasant jobs that most American employers are unable fill using U.S. citizens.  They put money back into those local economies and pay taxes.  In return, during a time of need, they receive little to nothing.  What have we as a society gained from this?  And equally important, what have we lost?

If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It.

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!

Opportunity For Whom and To Do What?

Several months ago, when I was reading about Paul Ryan’s poverty plan and the GOP’s 2017 proposed budget, I kept encountering references to block grants, or as they are called by some today, opportunity grants.  At the time, the GOP’s 2017 budget plan proposed shifting funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly called food stamps) to a block grant.  Many of the hunger fighting organizations, like the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) were very much against this proposal.  Wanting to better understand the implications of changing SNAP’s funding structure, I decided to do some reading on block grants, especially with regard to the SNAP program.  What I discovered made me understand why many organizations engaged in fighting poverty are deeply troubled by this proposal.

First, understanding what a block grant is and how it works is an important step.  Block grants arestack-of-money large sums of money allocated by the Federal government to a regional government, usual states, for a specific program or project.  Unlike other types of funding block grant funds come with few guidelines about how the funds are to be spent.  Block grants are often touted as a way to run government more efficiently and save tax payer dollars.  The belief being that these grants allow local governments, who know best how to use the grant money to help their citizens, have the flexibility to provide services or benefits in a more cost effective way.  In theory, block grants sound like they might be just the way to help solve our budget deficit; however, theory and practice are often two different things.

In practice block grants have a host of negatives, that for many programs, have proven to be detrimental if not disastrous.  When the Federal government changes a program’s funding formula to a block grant the money the Federal government allocates for that program is usually set at a fixed amount, and will not fluctuate from year to year.  Unless that fixed amount periodically is amended, block grants have the to potential to lose their value over time.  A prime example is Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF, formerly AFDC or welfare).  This program was flat funded through a block grant in 1996 with the enactment of welfare reform and yearly funding for TANF has remained at that same level for the down-arrow-w-moneypast 20 years, including during the Great Recession, reflecting a 28% loss in value.  Another limitation of block grants, also tied to fixed funding, is their inability to respond to economic downturns, when more people may need assistance.  Due to fixed funding, programs that are block granted are forced to try and help more people with the same amount of money, resulting in either a reduction of benefits or decline in the number of people able to be assisted.  Finally, block grants are usually administered with very few guidelines and very little accountability as to how the funds are spent, allowing the potential for funds to be diverted to other purposes and the certainty that assistance provided under block granted programs will vary greatly from state to state.

The possibility exists that block grants may be the panacea they are promised to be for some programs, but to fund the SNAP program through a block grant would be disastrous for a program that under its current funding and administration is a very successful program.  There are two main reasons this change in funding would be ill advised.  First, SNAP functions so successfully because it is able to respond to the current economic situation.  When the economy takes a down turn, like it did in 2008, funding for SNAP increased and it was able to provide assistance to the extra Americans who were in need.  Were the funding for SNAP to be a fixed block grant, millions of Americans who would have needed help would have been out of luck.  The second reason SNAP is so successful is that 90-95% of the funding goes to providing food aid.  Due to the uniform manner in which the program is administered at the federal level, little funding is needed for administrative costs.  If funding the SNAP program is shifted to a block grant, with little oversight or guidelines on how the funds are to be administered, there is the possibility that a larger percentage of the funds could be diverted away from providing food aid to covering other costs, thus reducing the effectiveness of the program.

The SNAP program has been called the cornerstone of our safety net and nutrition assistance programs.  In its current state the SNAP program is extremely successful, reaching 75% of all eligible individuals.  The program is able to expand when economic times are difficult and shrink, as it is now, as the economy recovers.  The Congressional capitolBudget Office projects SNAP caseloads will decrease from 45.8 million people in fiscal year 2015 to 33.1 million in 2026.  Currently the program is run with little administrative costs and almost no fraud (<3% and most of that is on the part of the retailers, not the consumers).  Not only does SNAP help the individuals that receive the benefit, but economist, Mark Zandi, states that a well funded SNAP program produces a positive ripple effect in the economy as SNAP benefits are put back into the economy, helping to pay the salary of the grocery store clerk, delivery truck driver and farmer.  Changing the funding structure of the SNAP program, however, would alter much of what make this program a success.  Why legislators would want to make such a change, that will in essence cripple the program, is difficult to understand.  Unless maybe that is actually the plan.  One hopes not.