Food stamps, officially known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), have been in the news a lot lately. Here’s a quick guide on why you keep hearing about food stamps and why, after years of being politically innocuous, the program has become unexpectedly partisan.
More people are using federal food assistance than ever before.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the governmental body in charge of administering food stamps, the number of recipients is at an all time high. In 2011, 44.7 million Americans received food assistance in the form of SNAP. That number has increased by 4.3 million people since 2010 and doubled since 2003. The money distributed in SNAP benefits increased even more than participant numbers, tripling since 2003. This is in part due to changes enacted by the 2009 stimulus package, including a 13.6 percent increase in benefits and extension of benefits beyond a three month limit. 2008 programatic changes for food stamps also contributed to the increased 2011 SNAP participation and benefit distribution.
More people are using food stamps because of difficult economic circumstances, defined by sustained unemployment rates and high food prices. Rising food stamp participation in a time of economic hardship may be seen as proof that the program is working as intended, that struggling families are reaching out and receiving assistance. Besides helping food insecure families and individuals directly, SNAP is also indirectly helping the economy. Moody’s Analytics found that each food stamp dollar actually generates $1.72 in economic activity.
So, other than to remark on yet another indication of economic hardship for Americans, why have food stamps been in the news lately? There are three primary reasons:
1. It’s an election year.
The increased number of people making use of food stamp benefits and the increased federal dollars spent on the program have made it a stumping point for Republican presidential candidates. Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have repeatedly made the headlines with their assertions that President Obama is a “food stamp president.” While the Wall Street Journal found the “food stamp president” label completely fitting, The Economist condemned assertions that any one person could put millions of Americans on food stamps. The Republican candidates have been called out again and again on the less-than-factual nature of some of their SNAP-related statements. A Los Angeles Times Op-Ed went as far as saying that President Obama should embrace the food stamp nickname because the program is helping economic growth and paints him as “a defender of American retailers and a protector of the security and integrity of all U.S. households.”
2. It’s a Farm Bill year.
SNAP is funded through that hodge podge of food-related legislation known as the Farm Bill. Approximately every five years the Farm Bill is rehashed and the discussions have begun again. Since food stamps received more than two-thirds of the 2008 Farm Bill funds, far more than any of the agricultural programs, it’s a big ticket item for the upcoming “what-can-we-cut” talks. Thoughts on what to slice out of the next Farm, or more aptly named, Food and Farm Bill, are evolving. Last February, it seemed as though President Obama would be fighting for food assistance while Republicans would throw their weight in the direction of big agriculture subsidies, though both sides of the aisle have mentioned cutting the USDA’s budget.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (WI-R) proposed a 20 percent cut to the SNAP budget last April. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities countered that 20 percent suggestion with an analysis of how such a cut would impact each state, asserting that many families would get pushed off of food stamps as a result.
In November, Congress approved a bill financing a projected 12 percent increase in SNAP spending for the remainder of this fiscal year. Beyond this year, food stamp funding may be in flux depending on how the Food and Farm Bill discussions play out. Even proponents of SNAP agree that there are improvements to be made in how the program is administered, particularly in collecting better data on SNAP to enable stronger evaluation and improvement.
3. It’s a program that matters.
Federal assistance for the food insecure helps many people make ends meet and many families feed their children. In a time when other government relief is slow and inefficient, SNAP is responsive and providing assistance. Setting election politics and Farm Bill discussions aside, politicians, organizations, and citizens are talking about food stamps because they want to make them even more efficient and more accessible:
-Last September, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (NY-D) offered legislation that would make food stamp use at farmers’ markets more accessible. The switch from paper stamps to plastic cards in the 1990s made it much harder to use SNAP benefits at farmers’ markets. Many organizations supported Sen. Gillibrand’s proposal, which would cost only an estimated $4.4 million to give all farmers’ markets the ability to accept SNAP benefits and give families using SNAP access to more fresh, healthy produce.
-In December, Sen. Ron Wyden (OR-D) proposed the Fresh Regional Eating for Schools and Health (FRESH) Act, which would also make outdoor markets more food stamp friendly and, perhaps more importantly, would require all “…corporations that receive more than $1 million a year from the SNAP program to provide taxpayers with an itemized receipt for their share of the over $70 billion each year that is spent in the SNAP program.” This increased data on how SNAP recipients spend their money is seen by some as an opportunity for strengthening the program’s effect on public health and by others as unnecessary oversight of consumer spending habits.
If Barack Obama is the “food stamp president,” perhaps 2012 will be the “food stamp year,” which hopefully means a year with productive discussion about how to keep more Americans distanced from hunger. To know more about the background of that discussion, two other one-stop resources to check out are:
The New York Times’ interactive timeline: A History of Food Stamps Use and Policy (http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2010/02/11/us/FOODSTAMPS.html?)
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities overview: Policy Basics: Introduction to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) (http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=2226)