November 8, 2012 by Elizabeth
In a time when the federal government is facing a huge budget deficit and millions of Americans are struggling, many in need of government support, spending for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is under intense scrutiny. SNAP is funded through the farm bill, a large federal statute passed every 5 years that sets the stage for nutrition and agriculture policy. Although called the ‘Farm’ bill, nutrition-related programs account for over two-thirds of the budget. These programs include the Seniors Farmers Market, Emergency Food Assistance Program, Commodity Supplemental Food Program, and the USDA Snack Program, but SNAP is by far the costliest program within this bill.
Some estimate that SNAP accounts for 78% of the 2012 Farm Bill. This is no surprise, given that participation in SNAP has increased rapidly during the past 4 years of economic recession. However, many are concerned that the government cannot afford to continue to pay for this program, and some wonder if SNAP spending is even worth it given that there are published links between SNAP participation and obesity risk.
So, what should the federal government do? When millions of Americans need food assistance, can we justify an enormous cost that the federal government simply does not have? The 2012 Farm Bill is still in the works: the senate passed a version this summer that cut the SNAP budget, although not to the extent that the house of representatives wanted. Some house conservatives have recommended making extremely deep cuts to the program, and even turning SNAP funding to block grants for the states.
From what I can see, there are two main options to reduce federal SNAP spending. The first is to alter eligibility requirements so that fewer Americans can participate and receive SNAP benefits. This would ensure that only the ‘neediest’ in our society are receiving benefits. However, this would leave a large group of Americans, likely those who are working low-paying jobs, without needed support.
A second option would be to reduce the amount of monthly SNAP benefits available to participants. This would keep all current participants in the program, but lower the cost of food they can purchase with SNAP. With so many SNAP participants, a small decrease in benefits for each individual could result in a large savings to the federal government, with minimal impact on the individual. Although this is not a popular move with the anti-hunger/poverty community, it is important to remember that SNAP is a supplemental program, and was never intended to provide enough money on which individuals could survive.
There is also a controversial discussion about whether to restrict the types of items that may be purchased with SNAP dollars, based on nutritional value. While these restrictions would not necessarily limit SNAP spending, they would lessen the potential link between SNAP and obesity, and improve the reputation and justification for large federal funding. However, many hunger advocates argue that these restrictions should not be put in place until we tackle the real issue of food deserts – with so many SNAP participants living in areas with limited access to healthy foods, they wouldn’t be able to use their SNAP dollars for many items. On the other hand, this may be a ‘chicken or the egg’ cycle, as SNAP nutrition restrictions may lead to an increase in environmental access.
The 2012 Farm Bill is currently waiting for the house of representatives to ‘make their move’. With large cuts to nutrition programs possible (or perhaps NOT large enough in the eyes of some conservatives), it seemed politically popular to wait until after the election before making a decision. While I obviously support funding of public health and nutrition programs, I do recognize the need for spending cuts across all governmental programs in order to combat our growing deficit. In my eyes, it seems like making small, gradual decreases in the benefits would be the more favorable approach, as this could save the federal government a large amount of money while imposing less of a ‘sting’ on the average American family. But, as with all things politics, we’ll have to wait and see what happens.