WHAT’S UP WITH SNAP?
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, currently serves about one in seven Americans. It brings 80 billion dollars worth of benefits into low income households and communities annually. In the wake of the welfare reform of the mid 1990s, it has become the only federal income support for millions of Americans. Twenty percent of the 47 million SNAP recipients have no other income at all.
Since the late 1960s, the Food Stamp Program (now SNAP) has been part of the farm bill. This arrangement has facilitated a “log-roll,” a kind of legislative bargain in which Congress members representing rural areas obtained urban support for price guarantees and subsidies for wheat, cotton, corn, soy and other basic commodities in return for support of the Food Stamp Program.
For the past several years, virtually all domestic policy discussions in Washington have been dominated by the federal deficit, and the Farm Bill is no exception. Over the summer, the Senate passed a new Farm Bill that shifted much of the support for basic commodities to a crop insurance approach and imposed cuts of about $4.1 billion on the SNAP program over the next 10 years. The House, however, was unable to reach agreement on a bill proposed by the House Agriculture Committee which would have imposed much steeper SNAP cuts totaling $21 billion. These cuts were too deep for many Democrats, but not deep enough to satisfy members supported by the Tea Party and other Republicans fearful of facing Tea Party candidates in the primaries.
As a result, the House separated the Nutrition Title from the rest of the Farm bill, thus disrupting the historic alliance that has provided urban support for farm subsidies despite a dramatically shrinking farm and rural population. The House then passed what observers are calling a “farm-only” farm bill and promised to take up the nutrition program in a separate piece of legislation. A working group led by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has now proposed a revision of the SNAP program that would impose $40 billion in cuts over the next ten years, primarily by reducing benefits and restricting eligibility. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities has estimated that the Cantor proposal would remove between 4 and 6 million people from the program.
The current status of SNAP is one of massive uncertainty. Will the House pass such deep cuts? In the summer’s votes, there was not enough Republican support to pass the bills without some Democratic votes, and Democratic votes for such deep cuts seem unlikely. If the new proposal is sufficient to secure passage with only Republican votes, the House and Senate will go to conference with bills that are so far apart that compromise seems unlikely, and any compromise that would pass the House seems unlikely to pass the Senate. Meanwhile, because SNAP is a permanently authorized entitlement, it can continue to operate as long as the appropriations committees continue to fund it. If the House and Senate do not reach agreement, the battle will shift to the appropriations and finance arena.
In the long run, it is unclear whether the log-roll can be re-established. If not, there may be dramatic shifts in the process of making farm policy as well as new alliances around nutrition programs.
In the midst of all this uncertainty about the future of SNAP, a piece of its past is about to bring hardship to millions of American households. In 2009, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), commonly known as the stimulus, Congress enacted a temporary benefit increase of about 13%. The original plan was for the increase to remain in force until it was gradually overtaken by the annual cost of living adjustments to the Thrifty Food Plan, the basis for calculating SNAP benefits. In the past several years, however, Congress has re-allocated much of the fund set aside to pay for the expanded benefit. Currently, the stimulus boost is scheduled to expire on October 31. Unless some action is taken, all participants will see a reduction in their SNAP benefits, averaging about $25 per household, beginning November 1. While any decline in food purchasing power is harmful to low income families, the original plan for a gradual erosion through inflation is clearly preferable to the shock of a sudden reduction in benefits. Advocates have dubbed the impending drop the “Hunger Cliff.” You can monitor the progress of a campaign to stop the cuts at www.hungercliff.org.
A number of groups are paying close attention to these developments, and you can keep up with them by monitoring the websites of The Food Research and Action Center www.FRAC.org, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities www.cbbp.org, and the National Center for Food and Agricultural policy www.ncfap.org.
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.