Save a buck, Starve a child?


November 11, 2012 by kevintmiller

The SNAP program is a part of the Farm Bill that comprises the largest Federal food assistance program, serving 14% of the population (45 million people annually) 1.  While there are reasonable questions about whether or not the foods that can be purchased under SNAP have the potential to lead to chronic disease, the idea that SNAP funding should be decreased (via a decrease in Farm Bill funding) during difficult economic times is unreasonable if we, as a nation, consider it important to provide a safety net for economically disadvantaged Americans who could otherwise go hungry.

It is true that in 1933 when the Food Stamp Act was first created the legislation was used to purchase excess crops from struggling farmers which were then used for hunger relief efforts1.  One could argue that the large industrial farms of today benefit unduly from legislation that was meant to aid an economic sector that once needed help but may no longer.  It is also true that since 1964 there have been debates over which foods should be allowed/disallowed for beneficiaries1.  One could argue that if food assistance beneficiaries are being allowed to purchase foods that are likely to lead to disease then they are likely costing the country even more money when they require aid with health care in the future. Image

But my argument will focus on the near future.  SNAP benefits families that use the safety net provided to BUY FOOD.  Chronic disease is not as much of an issue if you are acutely starving.  There are now efforts to reduce funding to the SNAP program by $4.5 billion2 (depending on your source) over the next ten years and despite the reality that there are some legitimate problems with and arguments against the way SNAP is structured, in difficult economic times it makes no sense to reduce funding to a program that helps to keep Americans from starving.

The 2013 budget for the United States involved spending over $3.7 trillion 3.  Even if all of the decrease in SNAP funding were to take place in a single year, it would comprise only about 0.0012% of the budget.  As a matter of fact, the amount of revenue brought in just by Estate and Gift Taxes this past year would have paid for the proposed cut of $4.5 billion twice over3!  And that’s just the revenue brought in one year, not over ten years.  Maybe that’s not a good comparison – somehow I think the people paying those taxes might not quite be the same as those who are getting SNAP benefits.

But wait a second – maybe that is a perfect comparison.  During difficult economic times, we are considering cutting funding to a program that could literally help keep people from starving.  But also during tough times, there are people paying estate and gift taxes that amount to over eleven billion dollars.  I’m not saying that all of these people are in the 1% or anything, but I bet they also don’t have to wonder about where their next meal is coming from.  I know that SNAP beneficiaries aren’t all on death’s door without this aid, but if even one American child is kept from starvation with this program, I think most of us would call the program successful.  (Over 76% of SNAP benefits go to households with children and 49% go directly to children themselves1.)  I won’t even mention that every dollar of SNAP benefits spent generates $1.79 – $1.84 in economic activity or that spending a billion on SNAP generates somewhere between 8,000 and 17,000 jobs 1.

I understand that we might want to look at government spending when the economy is not at its peak.  I also think that SNAP execution is poor in some ways and that providing nutrition assistance to people with foods that might increase their risk for chronic disease (even if they are themselves choosing these foods) is both economically moronic and immoral.  Ultimately, however, I think that it is worthwhile work for the government to provide assistance to people to BUY FOOD when economic times are tough.  I don’t think that funding should be cut – instead I think that over the short term, funding should be increased with the specific stipulation that solutions for making the program more efficient, cost-effective, and health-promoting be strongly explored.  If we have to squeeze somewhere in our budget to make sure it happens, I have an idea or two.  I’m sure that people paying gift taxes won’t mind shelling out another percent or two if it keeps a child alive.


(Please forgive the religious message in this photo if it offends you.  Though the message is not even from my own religion, I think it is one that might resonate with many.)

1. SNAP to Health,

2.NY Times Editorial, “Food Stamps and the Farm Bill”

3.US Government Printing Office, Budget for Fiscal Year 2013


2 thoughts on “Save a buck, Starve a child?

  1. kalnajja says:

    Kevin makes some good points here. Indeed, the SNAP program was not originally created to be what it is today, but over the years it has fed millions and kept many from going hungry. But, when looked at individually, I do not think it paints a complete picture. According to the Feeding America Network, those receiving SNAP benefits are subscribed to many other benefits as well.

    • 41% of households receiving emergency food assistance are also receiving SNAP benefits

    • 62% of those on SNAP benefits with children are participating in the National School Lunch Program

    • 53% of those on SNAP benefits with children are participating in the School Breakfast program.

    The lesson to be learned here is just how many Americans need more than one safety net to keep them afloat. I believe the strongest argument against cutting SNAP benefits comes from the perspective of other assistance programs who would be left and would most undoubtedly have to pick up the slack. These would include the NSLP, SBP, Food Pantries, Soup Lines, misc non-profits, etc, etc.

  2. waboyd says:

    Kevin’s and Kristina’s posts started me thinking – who exactly are the hungry in this country and where does their food come from when times are tough? To learn more, I turned to Feeding America, the largest hunger relief program in the US that oversees more than 200 food banks across the country. These food banks in turn supply food to thousands of locally run food pantries and soup kitchens. According to their website, in 2011, 46.2 million people (15%) were living in poverty including 16.1 million children (22%) and 3.6 million older adults (9%). While food insecurity is closely associated with poverty, a staggering 20.6% of households with children face the fear of having no food to eat compared with 12.2% in households with no children (14.9% all households). Our state of North Carolina is one of the seven states with food insecurity rates above the national average, with 17.1% of all households experiencing food insecurity. As the Baby Boomers age, the number of older adults experiencing food insecurity is estimated to increase up to 50% by 2025. Sadly, these statistics remind me of the quote from Sir William Deane, the former Governor-General of Australia: “Our worth as a democratic nation is how we treat our most disadvantaged and vulnerable”. Judged by these standards, I feel our nation is simply not doing enough.
    The two biggest sources of food assistance are: 1) Federal Food Assistance Programs: 57.2% of food-insecure households (the vast majority with children in the home) received benefits from SNAP, WIC, or the National School Lunch Program; and 2) Food Banks and Food Pantries: 6.1 million households (5.1%) received emergency food supplies from a food pantry at least once in 2011. Food banks ran by Feeding America provided emergency food assistance to 37 million people in 2011, a 46% increase from 25 million in 2006.
    So, as Kevin points out, this is just not the right time to think about decreasing SNAP benefits. Even at current funding levels, these systems are strained to the breaking point. The number of hungry people is expected to continue climbing over the next decade. Therefore, it makes sense to look at ways to increase efficiency to reach more people for each dollar spent. But don’t pull the safety net out from under our most vulnerable citizens in their greatest time of need.

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