Popularly referred to as food stamps, SNAP benefits are availed through Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards. This food benefit program has helped millions of low-income Americans sustain through times of economic turmoil. However, some of its disadvantages make people question the utility of this program.
A USD 5 billion cut in food stamps went into effect on November 1, 2013 which has already impacted 47 million SNAP recipients.
Formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is carried out by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). It is the largest program of its kind and was initiated with the aim of providing food assistance and nutrition to eligible low-income Americans. The main goal of the program is to minimize hunger and undernourishment by making it possible for low-income individuals to apply as participants and avail the benefits for purchasing non-prepared and prepackaged food. This program presently provides aid to approximately one-sixth or 47 million Americans and costs the government close to USD 80 billion annually. The numbers rose exponentially during recession and the resultant unemployment.
Caters to the Needs of Masses
This program has ensured that it takes into account a wide spectrum of low-income individuals. Individuals who are working part-time or for low wages, those who are currently unemployed, the disabled and elderly, children, and the homeless can all avail for food security through SNAP. The program also allows able-bodied adult students (18 – 49 years old) to avail SNAP benefits if they meet the expected criteria.
Being an entitlement, anyone who meets SNAP requirements is eligible to avail its benefits. The purpose of this program is to be of service to low-income individuals during economic crisis such as unemployment and when one income in the family is not sufficient enough to sustain any longer. This is the reason why a major surge in the number of applicants was witnessed during extended periods of economic downturn. The number of SNAP households that have some form of earning has increased from 2 million to 6.4 million from 2000 – 2011. For instance, in a family of three wherein the sole earning member makes USD 10 per hour, the take-home income is increased by 10 – 20 percent according to the hours worked. Thus, this food program acts as a backup plan for low-income households so as to help them continue feeding their family even if they lose their jobs or do not earn enough to sustain with their meager income.
Offers Work Incentive
The SNAP Employment and Training program provides short-term training to those who meet work requirements. Unemployed individuals who are 16 – 59 years old are not exempted and are required to register for the training program, which helps enhance their work skills by imparting General Educational Development (GED), vocational training, and assignments. The participants are taught resume writing and interview-giving skills. The program also helps recipients search for suitable jobs. Secondly, for every additional dollar earned in wages by the recipients, SNAP benefits are reduced by 24 – 36 cents. This small decline acts as an incentive for the participants to find jobs that pay better or give in more hours of work.
Helps Reduce Hunger
SNAP has helped minimize if not eradicate hunger among Americans. This program has helped reduce food insecurity by ensuring food supply every month. Presently, 40 million Americans are able to avoid hunger because of the support provided by SNAP. The ones benefiting the most from this food program are children below 18 years of age. It must be noted that children account for 49 percent of the recipients in the country.
Helps Alleviate Poverty
Nearly 91% of the families availing SNAP are below the poverty line, whereas more than 55% of recipients are currently sustaining below half the line of poverty. Secondly, the program ensures that the participants in need of more support are given greater benefits. A 2012 study conducted by the Agriculture Department found that SNAP reduced child poverty by an average of 15.5 percent in depth and 21.3 percent in severity during 2000 – 2009 and witnessed a peak thereafter as well. The study found that SNAP lowered the poverty rate by almost 8 percent during 2009 and contributed in improving the welfare of the participant households. According to a 2012 Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) analysis, since SNAP benefits are now considered as an income by the Supplemental Poverty Measure, 4.7 million people (2.1 million children) were prevented from falling under the poverty line in 2011.
Provides Nutrition Education
The SNAP nutrition education program conducts nutrition classes that teach recipients how to make healthy food choices while shopping and planning meals. The program provides educational material on the importance of healthy diet, staying physically active, and how to plan your budget for the whole month. The Healthy Incentives Pilot (HIP) project offers credit back incentives to the recipients who buy more healthy foods, thereby, motivating them to choose healthy foods instead of processed and unhealthy alternatives.
Obesity and Malnutrition
Some studies have revealed that the items that recipients prioritize while food shopping has led to increased malnutrition and obesity. Although food stamps can be used for buying breads, cereals, meats, fish, poultry, dairy products, and fruits and vegetables, many recipients end up making unhealthy purchases in order to minimize expenses and buy more food. The SNAP program allows recipients to buy food that is prepackaged. These prepackaged foods contain saturated sugar, fat, artificial flavors, additives, and are processed with several other chemicals to make these edible items last longer. People end up buying items in terms of quantity instead of quality, and with the aim of having enough food to last the rest of the month. The items that are listed as food and can be purchased with SNAP benefits include chips, noodles, several kinds of sugary sodas, and other foods that are considered as ‘junk food’ by health experts.
Restriction of Hot Foods
This food program denies its recipients access to any hot foods and restricts them to the prepackaged edible items on the retail aisle. Therefore, the recipients of SNAP are not allowed to buy otherwise nutritious food such as meals, hot soups, and sandwiches. A lot of people find it hard to prepare their own meals in case their oven/stove breaks down. In such cases, they have to rely on their well-wishers to help them prepare their next meal.
Vendors’ SNAP Permit
In order for vendors to accept food stamps, they must have a SNAP permit which is free. However, vendors are not obliged to avail these permits. Thus, despite not preferring the quality or range of food sold by certain vendors, recipients are forced to access only those stores that accept food stamps. Secondly, recipients are often forced to travel much farther from their homes so as to reach a vendor who does accept food stamps and has everything necessary under one roof.
According to the 2012 USDA Analysis of FNS’ Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Fraud Prevention and Detection Efforts, out of an average of 13.9 million monthly recipients in 10 States, 27,044 recipients continued to receive benefits despite being deceased because their Social Security Number was being used illegally. It was found that these recipients were either listed as ineligible/disqualified from availing SNAP benefits, or got double benefits from the same State or from another State simultaneously. Fraud is committed by retailers as well when they exchange cash for benefits, sell items banned by SNAP such as cigarettes and liquor, redeem greater benefits than the food sale of the store, or charge unidentifiable items on EBT cards.
People who avail SNAP benefits are often unfairly looked down upon by those who have never needed to use food stamps. These individuals are stigmatized as free riders and lazy people, who do not want to work and still want ‘free money’ to buy food. However, the reality is a lot different. The majority of SNAP recipients are, in fact, individuals who work more than one job at a time to make the minimal USD 10 a day. Some have disabled family members or minor children who are dependent on a single income and make do with the little help they get through monthly food stamps.