BEYOND THE NUMBERS
The budget resolution that the House Budget Committee approved yesterday requires the House Agriculture Committee to identify at least $10 billion in cuts over the next decade to nutrition and other entitlement programs under its jurisdiction. Most, if not all, of them could come from SNAP (formerly food stamps). Along with these cuts, which Congress would consider under the fast-track “reconciliation” process, the resolution puts forward a more complete fiscal plan — with far deeper SNAP cuts — that reflects the House GOP’s broader vision for the budget that would take several years to achieve. The plan envisions a total SNAP cut of $150 billion (more than 20 percent) over ten years, according to Budget Committee staff, through direct program cuts and the transfer of “significant authority” over SNAP to the states (akin to a block grant).
The House Budget Committee has proposed similarly deep SNAP cuts in each of its last six budgets. This year’s plan is different, however — not only because it uses reconciliation instructions to set a specific target for cuts to be enacted this year, but also because a Republican is now in the White House and he would likely sign into law the budget legislation that congressional Republicans send him. As the committee itself states, “[t]he budget resolution is no longer a theoretical outline with little chance of implementation. It is the major governing document of the 115th Congress.”
The SNAP cuts would occur in two phases:
Required fast-track cuts for enactment this year. The resolution requires the Agriculture Committee to identify, by October 6, at least $10 billion in cuts between 2018 and 2027 to programs under its jurisdiction; these cuts are part of a reconciliation process designed to enact at least $203 billion in ten-year cuts in entitlement programs this year. Although the committee could cut other programs in its jurisdiction to meet this target, the Budget Committee’s documents highlight significant cuts to SNAP and don’t mention any cuts to other Agriculture Committee programs. (The Budget Committee does envision cuts to other Agriculture Committee areas as part of its longer-term vision, its detailed tables show.)
The Agriculture Committee could adopt the types of SNAP cuts that it’s considered in the past and that are in President Trump’s budget, which would end or reduce benefits to millions of low-income people — including many working families, seniors, and people with disabilities, as well as some of the poorest Americans.
Large SNAP cuts envisioned over the longer term. The Budget Committee calls for giving “significant authority to the states” and cutting SNAP funding steeply. It offers no details, but last year’s House budget, which also called for $150 billion in SNAP cuts, assumed that $125 billion would come from converting SNAP to a block grant beginning in 2021 and cutting funding steeply (by almost 30 percent over the latter part of the decade).
States would have to decide whose benefits to reduce or end. They would have no good choices, since 90 percent of SNAP spending goes for food assistance, SNAP benefits average only about $1.40 per person per meal, and benefits go mainly to poor children, working parents, seniors, people with disabilities, and others struggling to make ends meet.
To illustrate the effect of cuts of this size, we calculated that if the cuts from last year’s proposed block grant came solely from eliminating eligibility for certain groups, states would have to cut an average of 10 million people each year, relative to SNAP enrollment without the cuts. If the cuts came solely from across-the-board benefit cuts, states would have to cut an average of more than $40 per person per month (in nominal dollars). This would require setting the maximum benefit at about 77 percent of the Thrifty Food Plan, the Agriculture Department’s (USDA) estimate of the cost of a bare-bones, nutritionally adequate diet. (State-by-state estimates of how the $125 billion in SNAP cuts could be allocated under a block grant are available here.)
Claims that policymakers must make huge cuts to rein in SNAP spending or to reform SNAP to require that beneficiaries work are misplaced. As we’ve explained, SNAP caseloads and spending are falling, and SNAP isn’t contributing to the nation’s long-term fiscal challenges. Evidence shows that SNAP supports low-wage workers while they’re working and while they’re temporarily unemployed. Moreover, SNAP already has work requirements; making them harsher would be counterproductive and increase hardship.