Last week, we debunked House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s false claim that the SNAP program, formerly called food stamps, is growing out of control. We’ve just issued a report showing that the enormous SNAP cuts he is proposing — $127 billion over ten years, almost 20 percent of the entire program — could throw millions of low-income families off the rolls, cut benefits by thousands of dollars a year, or both. (The report includes state-by-state estimates of the potential impact.)
Congressman Ryan, who also proposes converting SNAP into a block grant in 2015, hasn’t explained how his cuts would be implemented. But policymakers couldn’t possibly achieve cuts this big without cutting SNAP eligibility or benefits deeply:
Cuts in eligibility: If the cuts came solely from making certain categories of recipients ineligible for the program, more than 8 million people would need to be cut in 2012, if the cut went into effect that year.
Cuts in benefits: If the cuts came solely from across-the-board benefit cuts, the maximum SNAP benefit would have to be set at just 88 percent of the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP), the Agriculture Department’s estimate of the minimumamount a family needs to afford a bare-bones, nutritionally adequate diet. All families of four — including the poorest — would see their benefits cut by $147 a month in fiscal year 2012, or $1,764 for the year. All families of three would face cuts of $116 per month, or $1,392 for the year.
While Congress might not seek to hit the Ryan targets through eligibility cuts or benefit cuts alone, these examples illustrate the size of the needed reductions. There simply wouldn’t be a lot of other places to go to achieve the required savings; more than 90 percent of SNAP spending goes for food assistance for low-income households.
Who would feel the impact? Mostly very-low-income families with children, seniors, and people with disabilities. Eighty-six percent of SNAP households have incomes below the poverty line (about $22,350 for a family of four in 2011), and two-fifths of SNAP households have incomes below half the poverty line. Three-quarters of SNAP participants are in families with children; one-third are in households that include senior citizens or people with disabilities.
Large SNAP cuts on households like these would almost certainly increase hunger and poverty.
And they’re just one part of Ryan’s proposal, which would get nearly two-thirds of its $4.3 trillion in cuts over ten years from programs that serve people of limited means. Many vulnerable families hit by the SNAP cuts would also lose health coverage, housing assistance, or other important supports at the same time.
Moreover, block-granting SNAP means it would no longer expand automatically to respond to increases in poverty and unemployment during an economic downturn. So Ryan’s proposals could end up cutting SNAP by much more than $127 billion.