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SNAP Grew When Needed and Will Shrink as Economy Recovers

In a USA Today op-ed today, I describe the critical role that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — this nation’s first line of defense against hunger — plays in helping millions of low-income Americans afford an adequate diet.

As I explain, SNAP has expanded in recent years mostly because of the severe recession and because it does much better than it used to in reaching eligible people, especially the working poor.  The number of SNAP participants has leveled off in the past few months, and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) says SNAP costs will drop substantially as the economy recovers (see graph).


So, the suggestion in the accompanying USA Today editorial that policymakers “nudge” SNAP back to its size in the mid-1990s by cutting program funding is unnecessary.   CBO projects that by 2019, SNAP costs will fall back to their 1995 level when measured as a share of the economy (the best way to tell whether a given program is affordable) without any changes to the program.

Moreover, the cuts needed to reach this goal next year, rather than in 2019, would be more like a shove than a nudge.  Since SNAP’s administrative costs are very low (more than 90 cents of every dollar in SNAP funding goes for food assistance), cuts this big would require cuts in eligibility or benefits that would hit millions of low-income Americans hard:

  • If the cuts came solely from removing certain categories of households or individuals from SNAP, more than 15 million people would need to be cut from the program in 2013.
  • If the cuts came solely from across-the-board benefit cuts, benefits would have to be cut by about $40 to $50 per person per month.  (Right now, monthly benefits average only around $134 per person.)  All families of four — including the poorest — would see their benefits cut by about $160 a month, or more than $1,900 for the year.  All families of three would be subject to cuts of more than $125 per month, or more than $1,500 for the year.

We badly need to reduce our long-term deficits, but we don’t have to — and shouldn’t — do it in a way that increases poverty, hunger, and hardship.

Stacy Dean

Vice President for Food Assistance Policy