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off the charts

1996 Welfare Law Cut Food Assistance, Too

August 22 marks not just the 20th anniversary of the problematic Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant, which the 1996 welfare law created.  That law also brought cuts — many of which remain in effect — to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, then called food stamps), which have left monthly benefits smaller than they otherwise would be.    

Among the law’s cuts to food assistance, it:

  • Eliminated SNAP eligibility for many low-income legal immigrants (Congress later reversed many of these restrictions);
  • Restricted SNAP eligibility for childless adults to three months out of every three years unless they worked 20 hours per week or met other exemption criteria;
  • Cut SNAP benefits across the board by lowering the maximum benefit; and
  • Froze the standard deduction used to calculate SNAP benefits, causing the benefit’s value to erode over time.

Together, the last two changes permanently cut monthly food benefits for almost all participating households.  Since 1996, policymakers have amended SNAP several times, including changes that modernized the program and restored inflation adjustments to ensure that SNAP benefits reflect rising costs.  Still, the value of the basic SNAP benefit hasn’t fully recovered and today remains lower than it would have been without the 1996 law. 

If one used the benefit parameters from 1996 (before the welfare law changes took effect), adjusted for inflation, to calculate benefits in 2014: 

  • The average benefit per person per meal would be $1.49 instead of $1.39 (see graph).
  • The average monthly household benefit for a household of three would be $405 instead of $376 — that is, $29 higher per month and $348 more per year. 
  • For working households, the difference would be even larger:  the average monthly household benefit for a working household of three would be $362 instead of $329 — $33 higher per month and $396 more per year.

SNAP has an impressive record of meeting struggling households’ basic food needs by shoring up their monthly incomes.  If policymakers hadn’t cut the program so deeply in 1996, it would have an even stronger positive impact.