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The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is our nation’s most effective tool for combating hunger. It plays a critical role in reducing poverty, improving health and economic outcomes, supporting people who are paid low wages, and serving as the first line of defense against hunger during economic downturns. Access to SNAP provides families with the money they need to purchase groceries, freeing up their limited resources to spend more on other basic needs such as housing, utilities, and medical and child care.
As the Senate Agriculture Committee prepares to hold a hearing on nutrition programs in the 2023 farm bill, there are a few important points to consider.
SNAP is highly effective at reducing hunger and is a powerful anti-poverty tool, especially during times of economic downturn. SNAP reduces hunger by as much as 30 percent and is even more effective among children. Studies have shown that hunger among children fell by roughly one-third after their families received SNAP benefits for six months. Hunger was poised to soar early in the COVID-19 pandemic, but SNAP’s structure and policy changes made it easier for families to access SNAP during this period. Hunger stayed level in 2020 — unlike during the Great Recession, when hunger surged from 11.1 percent to 14.7 percent. SNAP also narrowed racial disparities during the pandemic: from late December 2020 through December 2021, the share of people who didn’t have enough to eat fell 7.8 percentage points for Black adults and 6 percentage points for Hispanic adults, compared to 3.1 percentage points for non-Hispanic white adults.
SNAP helps a broad range of people with low incomes, including children, older adults, people with disabilities, and veterans.
- Children: SNAP helps nearly 1 in 4 children in the United States afford an adequate diet. Nearly two-thirds of SNAP benefits go to families with children.
- Older adults: SNAP helps nearly 6 million low-income older adults — many of whom are on fixed incomes — afford food, which helps to stretch their budgets to better cover other household expenses like medication.
- People with disabilities: SNAP helps nearly 4 million non-elderly adults who either receive disability benefits or have work-limiting health conditions. Individuals with disabilities are at higher risk of food insecurity, making SNAP particularly important for them.
- Veterans: SNAP helps more than 1 million low-income veterans who may struggle to find work, may be employed in low-paid jobs, or may have disabilities or chronic health conditions.
SNAP is linked to improved outcomes for education, economic security, and self-sufficiency. When children are hungry, their performance at school suffers. SNAP is linked to improved educational attainment and higher rates of school completion. One study found that test scores among students in SNAP households are highest for those receiving benefits two to three weeks before the test. This suggests that SNAP can help students learn and prepare for tests — and that when benefits run out and families are struggling to afford groceries, children’s ability to learn is diminished. Similarly, children who received SNAP benefits when they were younger have improved labor market outcomes in adulthood.
SNAP is associated with improved health outcomes and lower medical costs. SNAP helps families with low incomes afford healthier foods and is linked to improved health outcomes over the long term. SNAP participants are more likely to report excellent or very good health than low-income people who don’t participate in SNAP. SNAP is also linked to lower medical costs; some studies show an association between SNAP participation and a reduction in health care costs by as much as $5,000 per person per year.
SNAP is an important support for workers. Finally, and key in some of the conversations happening now, SNAP is an important support (not a hindrance) for workers who are paid low wages and for those looking for work. No one can work when they are hungry. SNAP helps fill the gaps for workers with low and inconsistent pay, and it helps people afford food for themselves and their families during periods when they are looking for work. Most SNAP participants who can work do so. But many of the jobs most common among SNAP participants, such as service or sales jobs, often pay low wages and don’t offer regular work hours or benefits like paid sick leave. This makes it difficult for workers to earn sufficient income to provide for their families and may contribute to volatility due to high job turnover. SNAP supplements these workers’ low pay, helps smooth out income fluctuations due to irregular hours, and helps workers when they temporarily lose employment, enabling them to buy food and use their limited resources on other necessities. For millions of working people, work does not itself guarantee steady or sufficient income to provide for their families. SNAP responds by providing workers and their families with supplementary income to buy food.
While there are some areas where we should make improvements to SNAP, we must remember that it is critical to protect — not weaken — the program while looking for opportunities to strengthen it in a bipartisan bill.