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.
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, http://www.snaptohealth.org/snap/the-history-of-snap/
2.NY Times Editorial, “Food Stamps and the Farm Bill” http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/13/opinion/food-stamps-and-the-farm-bill.html?_r=0
3.US Government Printing Office, Budget for Fiscal Year 2013 http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/search/pagedetails.action?packageId=BUDGET-2013-BUD