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House Ag Nutrition Subcommittee Hearing on SNAP

On Thursday afternoon, the House Agriculture Nutrition Subcommittee held a hearing, “to review SNAP recipient characteristics and dynamics.”

On Wednesday, the full Committee heard background testimony from two experts on the SNAP program.

In her opening statement on Thursday, Subcommittee Chairwoman Jackie Walorski (R., Ind.) indicated that, “The full committee yesterday examined why a review of SNAP is so important – it’s the largest welfare program in both the number of recipients and the amount of spending, yet the program lacks a clear mission and the data reveals that it is not helping lift people out of poverty. It is my hope and expectation that this subcommittee, along with the work done at the full committee, will explore and gain a better understanding of the entire program and specifically its recipients to find unmet needs and areas of overlap.”

Chairwoman Walorski added that, “Today is not about policy recommendations; it’s about understanding the diverse characteristics and dynamics of the more than 46 million Americans who receive benefits from this program each month. Over the coming months, our review will include a range of stakeholder perspectives, including current and former recipients; non-profits, states and localities, the food industry, and nutrition experts to name a few.”

Subcommitte ranking member Jim McGovern (D., Mass.) noted in his opening remarks that, “As I said at yesterday’s hearing, I’m a little surprised that we’re starting the first ‘top-to-bottom’ review of programs within this Committee’s jurisdiction with SNAP, a program whose caseloads and spending are going down according to CBO. I hope we exercise the same rigorous oversight on farm subsidies to big agribusiness – payments that CBO projections indicate could end up costing nearly $5 billion more than expected in the farm bill.”

Ranking member McGovern added that, “I hope today’s hearing builds upon some of the overarching themes that came up yesterday. In particular, we need to address one the biggest flaws in our social safety net, the so-called ‘cliff.’ This happens when someone gets a job but earns so little they lose their benefits and end up worse off. And, if we really want to move people out of poverty for good, we need to raise the minimum wage.”

The Subcommittee heard testimony from only one panel that included: Karen Cunnyngham, a Senior Researcher at Mathematica Policy Research, Dr. Gregory Mills a Senior Fellow at the Urban Institute, Dr. James P. Ziliak from the University of Kentucky and Stephen Tordella, the president of Decision Demographics.

In her prepared testimony, Karen Cunnyngham indicated that, “In fiscal year 2013, 41 percent of SNAP households received the maximum benefit and 5 percent received the minimum benefit. The average monthly SNAP benefit was $271. SNAP households with children received a relatively high average benefit of $410, while households with elderly individuals received a relatively low one of $134. One reason for the difference in average benefits is the difference in average household size: 3.2 people for SNAP households with children, compared with 1.3 people for households with elderly individuals. SNAP households that include a nonelderly adult with a disability had an average monthly SNAP benefit of $204 and households with no elderly individuals, individuals with disabilities, or children had an average benefit of $195.”

Dr. Gregory Mills noted in his prepared remarks yesterday that, “This study examines the rates, causes, and costs of participant churn in SNAP. Churn occurs when a household receiving SNAP exits the program and then re-enters within four months or less, as defined by FNS for this research. Some churn is to be expected—as when a temporary increase in earnings makes a family briefly ineligible for assistance. Churn presents a policy concern, however, when benefits are disrupted for households who were continuously eligible. In these situations families lose benefits while off the program, with added time and expense involved in re-entering. Budgetarily, the pattern of case closings and reopenings brings higher State and federal administrative costs. Importantly, about half of the households who churn are families with children whose food security is placed at risk.”

Dr. James P. Ziliak stated in his prepared testimony that, “The past decade of near uninterrupted growth in participation is unprecedented in the program’s history. By most measures the recession of 2001 was mild, and with declining unemployment in the aftermath of the recession, past experience would have dictated a decline in participation in the mid 2000s. This did not happen. Participation then accelerated with the onset of the Great Recession as millions of Americans lost work.”

Dr. Ziliak added that, “[T]he fraction of SNAP households headed by a high school dropout has plummeted by more than half since 1980, and by 2011, more than a third of SNAP households were headed by someone with some college or more.”

In his prepared remarks, Stephen Tordella noted that, “The most common events associated with entry into SNAP were related to decreases in family earnings, loss of employment, and changes to the family situation. Among those who entered SNAP in the study period, 30 percent experienced a substantial decrease in family earnings in the previous four months, while 23 percent experienced a substantial loss in other family income—income aside from earnings and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Nearly 16 percent of those who entered SNAP were in families where a member became unemployed within the previous four months, and 12 percent experienced a change in their family situation within the previous four months, such as a pregnancy, a new dependent in the family, or a separation or divorce.”

On the other hand, Mr. Tordella noted that, “In about 30 percent of households that exit SNAP, the data do not show an event related to improved financial circumstances or reduced need in the previous four months that we would readily associate with exit from the program. About 70 percent experienced a substantial increase in income or a decrease in the number of family members. Thirty-seven percent experienced more than one of these events in the four months before exiting. Increases in earnings were the most common of the events we examined that preceded exits. These events, however, are common and do not always lead to exiting SNAP.”

With respect to re-entry into the program, Mr. Tordella explained that, “Forty-seven percent of SNAP participants who exited the program in the panel period re-entered within 12 months. Another 12 percent re-entered within two years, for a total of 59 percent re-entering within 24 months. Participants returned to the program more quickly during 2008 to 2012 than prior study periods. In the mid-2000s, 53 percent of participants re-entered within two years.”

During the discussion portion of yesterday’s hearing, Chairman Walorski had the following exchange with Dr. Mills.

Rep. Jackie Walorski: Mr. Mills, I have a question for you. In your churn study, talking about the cycling of families on and off of benefits, you mentioned one of the reasons that recipients were experiencing personal difficulties. And kind of in a follow-up to a question I had yesterday on the full committee on SNAP about families getting real help, what’s the engagement level of states going into these recertifications?

Dr. Gregory Mills: It’s rather extensive. That is to say the effort that is put into the recertification is a full review of the eligibility factors of the case, so it’s immigration, citizenship, it’s their household income, expenses, and resources. So it is, in terms of case worker effort, it’s probably something like two to three hours of a case worker’s time.

Rep. Walorski: So there is a case worker from SNAP that potentially knows there’s a situation with a family?

Dr. Mills: A scheduled—well, I’m talking actually about a scheduled recertification, so those would occur typically at intervals of 12 or 24 months. The point I was trying to make in my testimony was that the, say, two to three hours that might be spent by a case worker at recertification is far less than what is required at an initial application. And the phenomenon of churn causes individuals, once they go off the program, many of them have to come back by going through a full initial application, which may require, say, six or seven hours of a case worker’s time, so it’s more—

Rep. Walorski: And what did you learn in your interview process on interviews with SNAP staff and those in the community-based organizations?

Dr. Mills: I indicated some of the recommendations that individuals have, the staff of these offices. We interviewed staff in one local office in each of the six states. We also interviewed representatives of community-based organizations. And I believe the chairman actually made reference in his opening statement the other day to the extension of the food assistance network to include food banks and other nonprofit organizations.

Some states do make use of such community-based organizations to assist clients in the outreach and in applying for benefits. That is a strategy that some states also use at recertification, allowing the client to be interviewed by a worker at a food bank if, for instance, they might find it difficult to get to a local office, and if they’re already going to that food bank and it would represent less burden for them.

Rep. Walorski: I appreciate it. Maybe this is the disadvantage of longer certification periods, fewer interactions and opportunities to help families. I appreciate your testimony.

And ranking member McGovern had this exchange with Dr. Mills.

Rep. Jim McGovern: Thank you very much. Just on this issue of churning and recertification, we had a witness here yesterday who said that there should be more certification processes. And I guess my question to you is, you know, how would requirements for more frequent recertification likely affect the churn rate?

Dr. Mills: I think of this as a tradeoff that’s a difficult one to make. As I pointed out in my testimony, there are multiple objectives here. You want to provide access to the program for those who are eligible for benefits, and at the same time you want to maintain the integrity of the program by not allowing those who are ineligible to access the program. So the procedural barriers exist for multiple reasons. You want to make sure that people in fact meet the eligibility requirements, but you don’t want to place those barriers or those hurdles so high that it might prevent those who are in fact entitled to receive benefits from entering the program.

In general, as I think you heard from [Robert Greenstein, President of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities] the other day, the error rates in the program are very low. Only about 1% of recipients in the SNAP program are in fact ineligible and should not be receiving benefits. All others are eligible and perhaps not receiving the correct amount. But the program, by those measures, is very well administered, reflecting the amount of attention that goes into initial certification and recertification.

More barriers—I think that this is getting to your question—more barriers, more procedural requirements almost certainly would increase the rate of churn because there would be some individuals eligible for assistance who would not be able to meet those requirements, and they would go off, but they’d be unable to make ends meet without those benefits, they would reapply.

Rep. McGovern: Right. And I’d like to think that we all can agree that everybody who is eligible for this benefit should be able to get it, that we shouldn’t be going out of our way to make it more difficult for eligible people to get a food benefit.

And at the conclusion of Thursday’s hearing, Rep. McGovern noted that, “The SNAP program is a food program, it is not a job-training program, it is not a jobs program, and we need to make sure that everybody in this country has access to food; food ought to be a right- and I think this is a program that works.”

Also, in remarks yesterday on the House floor, Rep. McGovern noted in part that, “Mr. Speaker, yesterday the House Agriculture Committee – where I am proud to serve – held the first hearing in its ‘top-to-bottom’ review of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

“SNAP is the nation’s pre-eminent anti-hunger program that provides critical food assistance to more than 46 million Americans. Last year, 16 million children – or 1 in 5 American children – relied on SNAP. Unfortunately, every indication is that Republicans will once again try to cut this critical safety-net program.”

Keith Good