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 people 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 at 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 to 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 participants 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.