Why SNAP Benefits Need To Be Raised, Not Cut
October 15, 2013
Unless Congress acts, SNAP benefits to all participants will be cut in November 1, 2013 when the benefit increase established under the ARRA will terminate. SNAP benefits, however, need to be raised, not cut. For most participants, benefits run out before the end of the month, leaving households without resources to purchase nutritious food. A recent analysis of SNAP redemption patterns found that on average, participating households have less than a quarter of their benefits left by the mid point of the month.  Although the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP) on which the SNAP benefit calculation is based, is technically a nutritious diet suitable for ongoing use, there are several reasons why many households in the SNAP program are unable to meet their nutritional needs with current program benefits.
First, the SNAP program assumes that all households can dedicate to food purchase a sum equal to 30 % of their disposable income after specified deductions. Thus the maximum SNAP benefit, which is the cost of the TFP for the size of the household in question, is reduced by a sum equivalent to 30% of net income after deductions. This is a proportion of income far higher than that spent on food by the average American household (a bit over 11%) and is a patently unrealistic assumption for low income households.
Second, even SNAP households that qualify for the maximum benefit because they have no net disposable income (and are thus not expected to make food purchases from other funds), currently nearly 40 % of all SNAP households, may not be able to obtain a nutritious diet at the SNAP benefit level. Food prices vary substantially from region to region and among neighborhoods within a given locality, as captured by the familiar assertion that “the poor pay more.” Thus a SNAP benefit based on the national average price for the components of the TFP may fall significantly short in particular neighborhoods.
Third, not all SNAP households have access to full service supermarkets or other sources of food with prices similar to the averages for their area. Participants with mobility limitations may be restricted to nearby smaller stores with higher prices. And participants who can travel may need to factor in the cost of public transportation.
Fourth, the component foods of the TFP include many that require substantial time, skill and equipment to prepare. Researchers at Tulane University found that households would need to devote approximately two hours daily to food preparation to follow the 1999 TFP. The plan has subsequently been revised to include some convenience foods, but the time required is still unrealistic for households in which all adults work outside the home, and many households have neither the skills nor the equipment for “scratch” cooking.
FRAC has prepared a report on the need to replace the TFP with USDA’s Low Cost Food Plan (which allows about 30% more than the TFP).
Jan Poppendieck is Faculty Co-director of the Food Policy Center and a Professor Emerita of Sociology at Hunter College. Her 1986 book Breadlines Knee Deep in Wheat: Food Assistance in the Great Depression (Rutgers University Press) will soon be re-issued with a new Epilogue.
 Laura Castner and Juliette Henkne, Benefit Redemption Patterns in the Supplemental Nutrition Program: Final Report, xxvii. Cited in International Human Rights Clinic, Nourishing Change: Fulfilling the Right to Food in the United States (New York: NYU School of Law, 2013.
 See USDA data on food expenditures at http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-expenditures.aspx#.UimCqWRATnI
 cited in Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, SNAP to Health: A Fresh Approach to Improving Nutrition in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Washington ,D.C., July 2012. P.36.