Food Stamp Myth-Busting

For over four decades, the Food Stamp Program, which Congress renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in 2008, has had bipartisan support as the nation’s most important anti-hunger program. Even the far reaching welfare reform legislation of the mid 90’s left it intact.

However, the House-passed Republican budget drafted by Cong. Paul Ryan would cut it by 17% and turn the program into state block grants easily slashed further. As perhaps the legacy of his now-ended presidential campaign, Newt Gingrich denigrated the Food Stamp Program by tying President Obama to it as “the Food Stamp President.” Mitt Romney, while saying he is “not concerned about the very poor” because the “safety net” protects them, supports shifting food stamps to the states as a block grant and endorsed the House Republican bill cutting funding for 8 million of the 45 million participants. Cong. Darryl Issa (R-CA) chaired a House Government Reform Committee hearing March 8 entitled “Food Stamp Fraud as a Business Model” and released a video, “Food Stamp Fraud; Exposed.”

The only problem is that each of the allegations is overwhelmingly untrue. At the hearing, Committee Ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings (Baltimore) countered Issa by pointing out, “The need for the program is at a historic high, and fraud is at an all-time low. The true purpose of this hearing may be to discredit the entire program, to justify draconian cuts.”

Congressman John Conyers (D-MI), Dean of the Congressional Black Caucus and long-time advocate for the poor, contends, “Food stamps lift people from poverty, feed them, and give them an opportunity to work. When did those become bad?” he asks.

There are 427,626 food stamp recipients in Wayne County, 22 percent of the population, significantly higher than the national average 15%. Without the SNAP program many of these residents would be unable to survive. When it comes to being the “food stamp president,” MSNBC’s Alex Wagner said, “the President should wear it with pride.” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi added that the title is “a badge of honor” for the President.

The truth is that those who hope to radically alter SNAP don’t understand the program or the effect making significant cuts would have on millions of desperate Americans. Their case is built on the following myths.

Myth #1: SNAP growth is out of control.

About one in seven Americans now receives SNAP benefits. This means tested program is designed to grow as the economy contracts and shrink with economic recovery. Participation tracks the prevalence of poverty. Historic trends show about a year’s lag between increased employment and SNAP participation declines.

During the January 16 Republican debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Gingrich said, “More people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president.” However, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, as reported by USA Today and elsewhere, the number of recipients rose by nearly 14.7 million under President George W. Bush or 444,574 more than under Obama.

USDA reports total federal SNAP costs for 2010 and 2011 at $68.4 and $75.3 billion, respectively. No one argues that these are trivial expenses. The costs, however, are driven largely by the nation’s economic health. The Congressional Budget Office projects SNAP expenditures will decrease to pre-recession levels as the economy improves.

Bottom line: SNAP successfully responded to the severe recession and is already responding to our very gradual financial recovery.

Myth #2: SNAP adds to long term budget problems.

SNAP expenditures actually produce a general economic boost. Almost all benefits are spent within a month of receipt through more than 200,000 authorized food businesses. USDA estimates a multiplier effect of $1.79 for each new benefit dollar.

Bottom line: SNAP is a small factor in the country’s long term fiscal health and in fact adds to the U.S. economic health.

Myth # 3: The need for SNAP is exaggerated given other elements of the U.S. safety net.

National statistics for 2008 and 2009 show that despite an increase in the prevalence of poverty, the percent of households who experienced food insecurity held steady. This was possible because SNAP expanded to meet growing need and because benefit amounts were temporarily boosted by the 2009 Recovery Act. In contrast to unemployment insurance (UI) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), SNAP is available to almost all families who meet the Program’s stringent financial requirements. Many who lose jobs, unfortunately, don’t qualify for UI. Those who do qualify face time-limited benefits.

Bottom line: SNAP lessens the hardship of poverty and unemployment.

Myth # 4: SNAP wastes taxpayer dollars through inefficient federal administration.

In 2010, SNAP costs for federal administration were less than 1 percent of total federal SNAP spending. Even after adding the federal share of state administrative expenses, 95 percent of federal spending went directly to low-income participants in the form of benefits.

Bottom line: SNAP dollars go overwhelmingly to participating families.

Conservatives continue to attack food stamps, but SNAP is working. A report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that “The food stamp program…reduced the poverty rate by nearly 8 percent” in one year, 2009, alone.

Would those who would cut or end the program send the 46 million food recipients to the streets to fend in trash barrels, as happened before the New Deal?