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What Congress and the Media Are Missing in the Food Stamp Debate

The only thing missing from the conversation about food stamp funding is the state of hunger in America today and how we should respond to it.

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Any one of these factors would be sufficient reason to revise upward the amount of assistance offered to hungry families, but there is more. 

Even the way a family’s monthly net income is calculated is flawed. For families with earnings, Social Security or other income, there is a shelter deduction capped at  $469 (unless there is an elderly or disabled member of the household). The report notes “considerable evidence that [SNAP] households face housing costs in excess of the current cap on the shelter deduction, which results in overestimation of the net income participants have available to purchase food.” Translated, SNAP families are paying more for housing—and have less income available for food—than the government is assuming; the SNAP benefit is lower for many families than it should be due to flawed assumptions about their net income.

In calculating net income there are also no deductions permitted for out-of-pocket medical costs for nonelderly, nondisabled SNAP participants.

“The fact that these out-of-pocket health care costs are not considered particularly concerns me as a pediatrician,” says Dr. Deborah Frank, founder and principal investigator of  Children’s HealthWatch, a research organization analyzing the effects of economic conditions and public policy on young children seeking care in emergency rooms and clinics around the country. “Parents with children with special health care needs are less able to work many hours and have higher out-of-pocket health care related expenses. That means they are at particularly high risk of food, energy and housing insecurity, so there is a reciprocal relationship between children’s poor health and poor nutrition.”

Weill sees a willful ignorance at play “in some corners of Congress” when it comes to examining current benefit levels.

“It’s possible that the inadequacy of SNAP benefits might have better come to Congress’ attention if the House of Representatives—among its numerous hearings on the Farm Bill—had held a single hearing on the food stamp program, which it didn’t,” he says.

Also, for all of the GOP’s talk about designing welfare programs that move people towards self-sufficiency, it is completely ignoring (as are too many Democrats) new research showing that SNAP does exactly that.

University of California at Davis economist Hilary Hoynes and her colleagues looked at adults born between 1956 and 1981 “who grew up in disadvantaged families (their parent had less than a high school education)”, and the impact of access to food stamps early in life. The authors  find that “access to food stamps in utero and in early childhood leads to significant reductions in metabolic syndrome conditions (obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes) in adulthood and, for women, increases in economic self-sufficiency (increases in educational attainment, earnings, and income, and decreases in welfare participation).”

“The power of this study is that it goes all the way back to when the program was first being rolled out, county by county, and it looks all the way forward, to see how children’s decades-long trajectories changed as a result,” says Arloc Sherman, senior researcher, at the  Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “A baby girl fortunate enough to be born after food stamps had arrived in her particular county was doing significantly better, years later, in terms of health, education and all around self-sufficiency. Some in Congress may not realize it but this program hasn’t been stifling long-term self-sufficiency, it’s been building it.”

And yet here we are, teetering on the edge of cutting  $21 billion from a SNAP program that is assisting one in seven Americans; it’s a cut that would remove 2 million people from the program and cause more than 200,000 low-income children to lose access to school meals. Even the Democratic-led Senate is proposing a $4 billion cut, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates will result in 500,000 households losing $90 per month in SNAP benefits.

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