CONTRIBUTORS

Give thanks for food stamps. They work

Posted Nov. 26, 2013, at 11:24 a.m.
H. Luke Shaefer is assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Social Work.
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H. Luke Shaefer is assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Social Work.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called food stamps, has come under fire lately. Some legislators in Congress want to make it harder for people to get on the program and impose a stricter work requirement on those who claim it. Before diving into these efforts, though, I think during this week in particular it makes sense to give thanks for the program and all it has done for this country.

SNAP works. A number of recent studies, including one of my own, find that SNAP benefits improve the food security of recipients, the largest single group of which is families with children. Further, recent research by hard-nosed economists finds that program benefits improve the long-term health of children. My own research finds that access to SNAP not only improves the food security of families, it also allows them to use some resources originally spent on food for their other essential expenses. It keeps them from falling behind on their rent and utility bills.

SNAP makes a difference in people’s lives, especially the lives of children.

SNAP gets to the families who need it most. My own research finds that SNAP reduces the number of households with children in extreme poverty in the U.S. (those who live on no more than $2 per person, per day) by about half. Benefits dollars overwhelmingly go to those in the most dire circumstances. This has become a little less true over the past decade as a result of efforts by the Bush Administration to make it easier for the working poor to access benefits. No president since Lyndon B. Johnson has done more to increase access to SNAP than George W. Bush. He thought if you were working but still had a low income, you should have access to food assistance. Even with the changes his administration made to make it easier for working poor families to get benefits, however, SNAP benefits dollars remain largely concentrated among the poorest of the poor.

SNAP is responsive to economic downturns. Most of the big increase in the SNAP rolls over the past few years has been a direct result of the tremendous economic collapse that we have recently suffered. No one has felt the long-lasting effects of the Great Recession more than the poor, and SNAP has been there to help them. It has had to make up for the anemic response of our cash assistance program, what most people think of as “welfare” (a check for being poor), which is now a shell of its former self. Only about 1.5 percent of the U.S. population is on cash welfare. The large number of families on SNAP is not a sign of government waste, it’s a sign of how bad families have been hurting over these past few years.

SNAP is efficient: 95 percent of all federal dollars allocated to the program goes directly to the benefits individuals receive; overhead is a tiny portion of the total program’s cost. Further, the program is still only a tiny fraction of the federal budget. Out of every $100 the federal government spends, about $2 goes to SNAP. SNAP is not busting the budget. What’s more, fraud has been minimized by innovative changes in the way benefits are delivered. Only about 1.3 percent of benefits are spent fraudulently, way down from what was true in the early 1990s.

SNAP is the very model of a successful government program. It does what we ask it to do — and more. It gets to the people who need it most, and it makes people’s lives better. Imagine if we could say the same about our health care system, which is currently bankrupting us. Imagine if we could say the same about our Congress, which can’t seem to agree on anything.

Before we delve too deep into a conversation about reducing the reach of this program, a program that works, perhaps we should spend some time trying to emulate it. If we all did our jobs as well as SNAP does its job, this country would be in great shape.

H. Luke Shaefer is assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Social Work and a research affiliate at the National Poverty Center. He is a member of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

 

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