off the charts

Future SNAP Cuts Would Come on Top of Recent Cuts

Dottie Rosenbaum

Senior Fellow and Interim Program Area Lead for Food Assistance

Policymakers considering SNAP cuts this year — the House budget calls for $125 billion in cuts over the next decade, for example — should remember that any future cuts would come on top of cuts that occurred recently or are occurring under current law.  Roughly 1 million unemployed, childless adults are slated to lose SNAP over the course of 2016 as a three-month limit on benefits returns in many areas.  And, as our new paper recaps, nearly every SNAP recipient experienced a benefit cut averaging 7 percent in November 2013 when the benefit boost in the 2009 Recovery Act expired.

Policymakers raised benefits in 2009, at the height of the Great Recession, recognizing SNAP’s proven effectiveness at providing economic stimulus and reducing hardship.  In a weak economy, every $1 increase in SNAP benefits generates about $1.70 in economic activity, Moody’s Analytics estimates.

The benefit boost helped millions of low-income families afford adequate food.  The share of households with “very low food security,” meaning they had to skip meals or take other steps because they couldn’t afford sufficient food, was expected to rise in 2009 due to the recession.  Yet it fell among households with incomes low enough to qualify for SNAP, while rising among somewhat better-off households (see chart).

The sudden benefit cut when the benefit increase expired on November 1, 2013 likely increased hardship for many struggling families.  Benefits fell by about $20 per household per month, on average — equivalent to ten meals a month.  The average benefit per person per meal fell from about $1.49 to just $1.38.

The benefit cut reduced total SNAP benefits by about $5 billion in fiscal year 2014.  Also, SNAP caseloads, which had grown between 2007 and 2011 due to the recession and lagging recovery, leveled off in 2012 and 2013 and then fell by about 2 percent in fiscal year 2014.  These two factors pushed down overall SNAP spending by about $6.3 billion (8 percent) in 2014.