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Greenstein on the Safety Net, Part 2

April 18, 2012 at 10:20 PM

Our first set of excerpts from Robert Greenstein’s House Budget Committee testimony of this week looked at the safety net as a whole.  Today’s excerpts concern the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly food stamps:

[T]he proposal in the House budget to convert SNAP to a block grant and cut it at least $133.5 billion over ten years . . . is a source of great concern.

SNAP funds go overwhelmingly for food purchases — nearly 95 percent of federal SNAP expenditures go directly for benefits to recipients.  Most of the remainder goes to determine eligibility, administer the work requirements and work programs, and approve and monitor compliance by retail food stores — costs that would largely remain under a block-grant.  The math here is inexorable — the only way to secure savings of this magnitude would be to cut eligibility, benefit levels, or both.

If the savings were to come entirely from eliminating eligibility for currently eligible households, more than 8 million people would need to be cut adrift from the program if the cuts began taking effect in 2013. . . .

If the savings were secured by cutting benefit levels instead, increased hunger and food insecurity would likely result.  Considerable research suggests that the SNAP benefit level may already be too low to enable many families to secure an adequate diet throughout the month.  (Many run out of adequate food toward month’s end.)  The Institute of Medicine is currently reviewing this matter and examining whether the current SNAP benefit level is adequate.  It would be dangerous to shrink benefit levels for needy children, seniors, and others.

Converting SNAP to a block grant at substantially reduced funding levels also would have other deleterious effects.

  • SNAP would no longer be able to respond to increased need during economic downturns, resulting in increased hardship and hunger in recessions.
  • Nor would SNAP be able to bolster the economy during recessions as it does today. . . .  Preventing SNAP from expanding automatically as the economy weakens by converting it to a block grant would remove what economists call an “automatic stabilizer” and hence likely make recessions somewhat deeper and longer.
  • Finally, a proposal like that reflected in the House budget would make deep poverty more widespread and severe, especially among children, who make up about half of all SNAP beneficiaries. . . . 

Above all else, there is the issue of children’s health.  I am old enough to remember the mid and late 1960s, when each state sets its own food stamp rules, some states cut off families at income levels as low as 50 percent of the poverty line, and some states adopted barriers that impeded participation (in some cases, with disproportionate effects on members of some minority groups).  Two teams of medical researchers conducted nutrition surveys in the late 1960s and found rates of childhood malnutrition and related diseases in some poor areas of our country that were akin to those in some third-world countries.  This led to a national bipartisan consensus — led by President Richard M. Nixon — to establish national eligibility and benefit standards for food stamps.  In the late 1970s, after the national standards had taken effect, the medical teams returned to many of the same poor areas they had studied in the late 1960s and found dramatic improvement among poor families and especially among poor children.  Child malnutrition and related conditions had become rare.  In a famous report on their findings, the medical researchers wrote.  

In the Mississippi delta, in the coal fields of Appalachia and in coastal South Carolina — where visitors ten years ago could quickly see large numbers of stunted, apathetic children with swollen stomachs and the dull eyes and poorly healing wounds characteristic of malnutrition — such children are not to be seen in such numbers.  Even in areas which did not command national attention ten years ago, many poor people now have food. …

The researchers credited food stamps as the single largest factor for this striking progress, concluding that “no program does more to lengthen and strengthen the lives of our people than the Food Stamp program.”  I believe this is a lesson we shouldn’t forget.

Click here for the full testimony.