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Modernizing SNAP Benefits

SNAP (food stamp) benefit levels are “based on increasingly outdated assumptions, including unreasonable expectations about households’ availability of time to prepare food, and need to be modernized,” a new paper that James P. Ziliak presented at a Hamilton Project policy forum this week explains. 

It calls for a 20 percent benefit increase in the short term and more research to modernize the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP) — the estimate of a bare-bones, nutritionally adequate diet that the Agriculture Department uses to calculate SNAP benefits.  The cost of the TFP, which hasn’t been updated to reflect changes in dietary recommendations since the 1970s, “assumes that low-income households can spend an unlimited amount of time preparing food from scratch and has consequently shifted toward the food items that are lowest cost but most time-intensive,” the paper explains. 

The paper identifies several other technical limitations of the TFP methodology that have “collectively . . . resulted in a TFP that — by formula — no longer meets the needs of SNAP households.”

The proposed changes reflect recent research showing that SNAP, despite its modest benefits, not only reduces food insecurity but can also have important long-term health benefits, especially for children.