SNAP out of it: Food security shouldn’t be a budget battle

20121112_111112foodstamp03_33The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as ‘food stamps’, faces steep cuts in Congress this fall.  First, a temporary boost in SNAP benefits enacted by the stimulus bill (the 2009 Recovery Act) is set to expire in November.  Second, a long-delayed vote on SNAP reauthorization will be taken up by the House of Representatives today on a bill that includes large funding cuts and unprecedented rule changes.  This post explains the implications of these developments and the effect of SNAP cuts on working Oklahomans.

SNAP is the nation’s primary food security safety net and Oklahoma’s first line of defense against hunger.  Households with gross income up to 130 percent and net income up to 100 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) may be eligible (with exceptions for elderly and disabled Oklahomans).  Approved households are allotted a monthly benefit amount to purchase food at authorized retailers, currently $132.90 per month per person on average; the monthly benefit can vary substantially by household size, type and income.   In FY2012, 615,467 Oklahomans participated in SNAP, about 16 percent of the state’s residents.  The majority of recipients are children, people with disability, and older Oklahomans.

SNAP enrollment is strongly correlated with the health of the economy.  When the Great Recession hit and Oklahomans began losing their jobs and depleting their financial resources, SNAP applications jumped 80.3 percent (between 2007 to 2010).  The economic hardship brought on by the recession prompted Congress to pass the 2009 Recovery Act, which included a temporary increase in monthly benefits and eligibility waivers for some unemployed workers.

It’s unlikely that Congress will act to prevent the expiration of changes made to SNAP by the Recovery Act.  The impending November cuts are significant, amounting to a $66 million loss of federal nutrition assistance for Oklahoma. The amount the average SNAP recipient receives per meal will fall back to $1.40, an increasingly inadequate sum for most families.  Food prices continue to climb and families are struggling with the rising costs of other basic necessities – e.g. fuel, utilities, housing.  

oviewThe second major development is the House of Representatives bill to reauthorize SNAP, which has historically happened every five years under the Farm Bill reauthorization.  This year however the food and nutrition components were removed from the Farm Bill after large cuts and proposed changes to the food stamp program were preventing the Farm Bill from getting the votes it needed to pass.

The food and nutrition components are now up for a vote in House Resolution 3102.  The bill includes the very same measures that held up the Farm Bill vote initially, including changes to eligibility guidelines and additional substantial funding cuts (see the table to the left).  Even if H.R. 3102 passed the House today, it’s very unlikely that it would pass the Senate with all of the proposed changes intact.  However, the passage of any of the provisions detailed below would significantly undermine the food security of low income working families in Oklahoma.

Eliminating ‘categorical eligibility’ and other reforms that have streamlined the application process is ill advised both for the state agency that administers the program and for SNAP participants themselves.  Since November 2000, SNAP rules have allowed households who qualify under other similar types of public assistance for very low income households to attain SNAP benefits through an expedited application process.  

waitingThe expedited process means less waiting time, fewer trips, and less paperwork for participants who the state knows already meet SNAP eligibility standards.  For working parents with children, a lengthy and burdensome application process presents a considerable logistical challenge and risks lost wages due to time away from work.  On average, applicants spend over 6 hours and make 2-3 trips to the SNAP office before they’re ultimately approved for benefits.  Streamlined eligibility also eases the workload on over-worked and underpaid employees at DHS.

Another proposal excludes certain adults with felony convictions from SNAP.  Working people with criminal convictions must overcome significant obstacles to secure living wage employment.  It should come as no surprise when they fall on the safety net in disproportionate numbers, in fact they are precisely who public benefit programs are intended.   Excluding Oklahomans with a felony conviction from SNAP is counterintuitive – we wouldn’t exclude the unemployed from Unemployment Insurance would we?

Finally, the so called ‘work requirements’ are especially troubling (click here for an info graphic detailing why).  These requirements are a red herring.  First, the majority of SNAP households who can work are already working.  Second, able-bodied working aged adults who turn down jobs or work programs, quit their jobs voluntarily, or otherwise choose not to work are not eligible for SNAP.  

One particular group has been a popular target of ‘work requirement’ benefit cuts (both by Congress and by the Oklahoma legislature): able bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs).  Yet the majority of ABAWDs in Oklahoma are working.  On the whole they are young, work full or part time jobs, have low educational attainment (suggesting many are students pursuing their education), live alone or with roommates instead of relatives, and don’t have health insurance.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) explains how the so called ‘work requirements’ eliminate much needed food benefits for vulnerable low income families and individuals with no other options:

These provisions would end food assistance for large numbers of people who want to work, are looking for jobs, and will take a workfare or job training placement, but who cannot find a job in a weak labor market — many of them have limited education and skills — and have not been offered a place in a work or training program.

While unemployment in Oklahoma is not as high as in other parts of the country – unemployment in the state is much higher in eastern Oklahoma and for workers of color.  For those who can’t find work, and for other low income working families struggling to make ends meet, SNAP is essential.  Food security should not be negotiable, regardless of political or ideological views on federal spending.   

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