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House Ag Committee Hearing: SNAP (Food Stamps)

At a House Agriculture Committee hearing on Wednesday that focused on the SNAP program and nutrition issues, Chairman Mike Conaway (R., Tex.) indicated that, “[The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)] is the largest program under the Committee’s jurisdiction, and today’s hearing marks the beginning of a top-to-bottom review of the program. We will conduct this review without preconceived notions and with a commitment to strengthening the program so it can serve as a tool to help individuals move up the economic ladder.”

Chairman Conaway added that, “We can all agree that no one ought to go hungry in America, and SNAP is essential in protecting the most vulnerable citizens during tough times. For many it is a vital lifeline to keeping food on the table. What we don’t want is for this program to hold people back from achieving their potential. I believe there is a role for SNAP, but we need to have a complete and clear understanding of its mission and purpose.”

Robert Greenstein, President of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and University of Maryland Professor Douglas J. Besharov were the only two witnesses at Wednesday’s hearing.

In prepared testimony, Prof. Besharov noted that, “I applaud this committee’s multi-faceted re-examination of the program, its past, present, and future. Based on my research and analysis, I think the key challenge is to modernize a massive program that started as a small program of food assistance to become the primary US program of income support.”

Prof. Besharov added that, “That would mean coordinating the SNAP program with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Unemployment Insurance, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and other tax credits. In doing so, there should be an effort to rationalize the current patchwork of programs that make up the US safety-net in a way that balances what looks to be long-term weak demand for labor economic with the need to minimize the work and marriage disincentives in current law.”

Prof. Besharov pointed out that, “Today, instead of hunger, the central nutritional problem facing the poor, indeed all Americans, is not too little food but, rather too much—or at least too many calories. Although there are still some pockets of real hunger in America, they are predominantly among populations with behavioral or emotional problems.”

In his testimony, Prof. Besharov explained that, “As I have described, states are financially and politically rewarded when they move people off UI and TANF (programs with at least some activation requirements) and on to SNAP. This incentive was not created deliberately, but, rather, is a historic accident of how and when the programs were established…[R]eal reform probably requires that the states be made financial partners of the federal government. States should have a more direct financial stake in the proper governance of SNAP programs, including of eligibility determinations. Given that all program funds come from the federal government, a substantial liberalization of eligibility determinations was predictable. State officials have little reason to be cost conscious—as long as program funds seem available.”

During the discussion portion of Wednesday’s hearing, House Ag Nutrition Subcommittee Chairwoman Jackie Walorski (R., Ind.) had this exchange with Prof. Besharov:

Rep. Walorski: “And I guess as we’ve talked about today, we’ve talked about the issue of how do families, how do single moms and how do underemployed families pay for food, and healthcare, and lodging, and daycare, how does all this happen. And my question is, when they finally get to a point where they have figured all this out, what then does the government do to really help these families?

“Has the SNAP program historically been just a Band-Aid to pass them on to the next…somebody else to deal with them or is there a sense that, you know, there’s an opportunity to actually look at what this government can do, should do, and actually getting real help to the financial challenges and how this happened to begin with? So I guess just historically, where do you see this? Has this always just been a Band-Aid to try to get people along or is there a long-term solution that’s been talked about?

Prof. Besharov: “Well, I think the world’s changed. Before 1996 we would have had this conversation about TANF. And what happened was when the Congress reformed TANF and the case loads went way down, the SNAP case loads, over time, over a 20 year period, went up. And as I said in my testimony, some people on the right, especially, call SNAP welfare 2.0, which is this is the new version of that.

The difference is that within the SNAP program, the states don’t have an incentive to really reform, to provide those kinds of uplifting services because of the formula. The formula is if a state wants to provide services to people in your district in Indiana, it has to pay 50% of the cost, but if it wants to just give out SNAP benefits, it only pays the administrative costs, and those are very low.

So my recommendation is that whatever the incentive is, whether it’s giving the states a bounty every time they get somebody from SNAP a job or an advanced degree or whatever, give them a financial incentive to help the people on SNAP. It’s not there now.”

A video replay of Rep. Walorski’s complete remarks at Wednesday’s hearing can be seen here:

Subcommittee Chairwoman Warloski also made the following tweet on Wednesday:

In his prepared remarks, Mr. Greenstein noted that, “As of the end of 2014, SNAP was helping more than 46 million low-income Americans to afford a nutritionally adequate diet by providing them with benefits via a debit card that can be used only to purchase food. The benefits are relatively modest. SNAP participants receive an average benefit of $1.42 per person per meal.”

Mr. Greenstein added that, “SNAP targets benefits on those most in need and least able to afford an adequate diet. Its benefit formula considers a household’s income level, along with its essential expenses such as rent, medicine, and child care needed to work. Although a family’s income is the most important factor affecting its ability to purchase food, it is not the only factor; a family whose rent and utility costs consume two-thirds of its income will have less money to buy food than a family that has the same income but receives a rental voucher to cover a portion of its rental costs.

“The program’s targeting of benefits adds some complexity. However, it helps to ensure that SNAP provides the largest levels of assistance to the poorest families with the greatest needs, and lesser assistance to those whose level of need is less severe.”

Mr. Greenstein pointed to research that “found that adults who had access to food stamps as young children had an 18 percentage point higher high school graduation rate than the children who hadn’t had access to food stamps. The children with access to food stamps also had significantly lower rates of ‘metabolic syndrome‘ (obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes) and better health in adulthood. In addition, women who had access to food stamps as young children had higher earnings and lower rates of welfare receipt in adulthood.”

Mr. Greenstein also pointed out that, “SNAP error rates now stand at record lows. Fewer than 1 percent of SNAP benefits are issued to households that do not meet all of the program’s eligibility requirements.”

Also at Wednesday’s hearing, House Ag Nutrition Subcommittee ranking member Jim McGovern (D., Mass.) raised questions about the hearing, noting that: “You know, today’s hearing is described as the start of a top to bottom review of SNAP, and I’m certainly a proponent of rigorous oversight of all programs. But I have to say, at the beginning, I find it a little bit curious that we seem to be singling out SNAP for review, especially at a time when the most recent CBO projections show that SNAP case loads and spending is moving in a downward direction, and CBO also says that payments to farmers could be nearly $5 billion more than was originally expected in the farm bill. I don’t know why we’re not beginning with a top to bottom review of that, but

“And I appreciate you being here. And I hope, if we’re going to do a top to bottom review, that we also, at some point, have a panel of beneficiaries, people who are on the program, who can testify firsthand what works and what doesn’t work. And maybe we should also have someone from [the Food and Nutrition Service] here as well, because they administer the program. I hope that this is not going to be an exercise in another attack against poor people because I fear I’ve seen this movie before, and I didn’t like it the first time. But it is what it is.”

Keith Good