There is a lot of false information out there about food stamps and the people who receive them. It’s important to separate the common myths and misconceptions from the truth about food stamps — such as, just who are those 1 in 7 of our neighbors who rely on them?
Both federal and state legislators – typically self-described conservatives – regularly try to place limits on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or “food stamps”). In recent years, they have tried to cut food stamp funding at every opportunity. They propose rules to humiliate and demonize recipients of food stamps and other welfare programs, which they claim create a “culture of dependency.” President Trump wants the biggest cut to the program in decades.
The fight continues to protect food assistance benefits as the first line of defense against both hunger and poverty. Therefore people must understand how the food stamps program works, who it helps, and how much it costs.
So let’s get to it.
Can anyone can get food stamps, settle back, and live high off the hog?
You’ve likely heard stories (and outrage) about people using food stamps to purchase “steak and lobster” as well as cigarettes and alcohol, showing up at the grocery store in a nice car, nice clothes, a nice purse or an iPhone. But the federal government sets the food stamps benefit amount at, on average, roughly $4 a day per person. Yes, someone could save up their monthly allotment to buy some high-priced food items for a special occasion. (You can’t use food stamps to buy prepared foods or anything that’s not food.) They are likely eating rice and beans, peanut butter sandwiches – and going hungry – the rest of the month.
Moreover, many people living in poverty fell into it through job loss, the loss of a partner or spouse, or a major illness or accident. They will maintain appearances and hold onto their nice things for as long as they can afford to. After all, they’re clearly being judged by those around them.
To receive food stamps you must be poor…
And you have to prove it. The U.S. Congress sets the rules and the funding for the SNAP/food stamps program, and then states administer it. To be eligible for food stamps your social security number is run through a number of government databases and you have to provide documents of your income and all your expenses. You have to prove that you are at or below 130% of federal poverty level guidelines, which determines what a livable income is based on household size. For a family of three in Pennsylvania who are all under age 60 with no disabilities, the maximum qualifying income for food stamps is $2,688/month (or about $32k/year). This cutoff varies by state.
Some people aren’t eligible for food stamps regardless of income, such as all undocumented immigrants, certain legal immigrants, and individuals who are on strike. States can also opt in to federal rules on food stamps eligibility, by requiring asset tests, or create their own, like barring those who fail drug tests or with prior criminal offenses.
And, if possible, you must be working.
In 1996, President Clinton and Congress put in place work requirements for unemployed food stamps recipients. Able-bodied adults age 18-59 and without dependents must be working for at least 20 hours a week or engaged in job training, education, or community service for a certain number of hours each week. Otherwise they can only receive food stamps for 3 months in a 3-year period. High unemployment caused this rule to be suspended during the recent economic recession but is now back in place. (It was reinstated in most of Pennsylvania on March 1, 2016.)
Now that you know the basic rules (more info here on eligibility, what you can buy with food stamps, and how to apply), let’s address common complaints and questions about the food stamps program:
Should the U.S. be spending so much on food stamps?
- 83% of all SNAP/food stamp benefits go to households with a child, senior, or disabled person. Most food stamp recipients are children and the elderly. Are these the people we want to turn our backs on?
- Legislators complain that food stamp spending in recent years has reached record highs. So has defense spending, but they justify that with the country’s ongoing military activity and wars. Shouldn’t there be a war on hunger and poverty?
- Food stamp spending is a tiny fraction of overall government spending—just 2% in 2012. (For comparison, we spent 19% of the U.S. budget that year on defense.) And nearly all of that spending (93%) goes directly to households to help them purchase food.
- The food stamps program is highly efficient in terms of bang for the tax-payers’ bucks: it reaches the majority of people who need it and helps lift 4.7 million people out of poverty (reducing child poverty by 3%), thereby reducing hunger’s enormous costs to society ($6 billion in Pennsylvania alone).
- Every $5 in food stamp benefits nearly doubles the dollars in economic activity.
- The majority of Americans have consistently supported the food stamp program and think cutting it is the wrong way to reduce government spending.
In fact, we’re not spending enough on food stamps.
The need for food assistance is greater than food stamps can fill, and the benefit amount is too low to allow a family to purchase an adequate, healthy diet.
- The average monthly food stamp benefit per person is only $133.85, or less than $1.50 per person, per meal.
- Between 2009-2011 the purchasing power of food stamps declined by about 7%, or $47/month for a family of four, due to inflation in the cost of food.
- Only 55% of food insecure individuals are income-eligible for food stamps. More than 1/4 of food insecure people (29%) are not income-eligible for any federal food assistance.
Why has food stamp enrollment grown?
The federal government created food stamps as an entitlement program so that anyone who qualifies can immediately receive nutrition assistance. Funding for the program automatically expands based on need; this keeps people from starving during hard times.
Not surprisingly, participation in SNAP/food stamps increased by 70% between 2007 and 2011 due to the economic recession. This was exactly how the program was intended to operate. With unemployment high and wages not keeping up with the costs of living, food stamp participation will rise. But food stamp enrollment is already significantly decreasing as the economy and employment rates improve.
Food stamp recipients are not lazy or relying on welfare to get by.
It used to be that more food stamp recipients received government cash assistance and few worked. But after the 1996 Welfare Reform Act remade welfare as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and turned it over to the states, only a fraction of families in deep poverty who qualify for cash assistance receive it.
In the same year, a new federal mandate requires food stamp recipients to work if they can (as stated above). And SNAP, unlike TANF, is actually effective at supporting work:
For every additional dollar a SNAP recipient earns, her benefits decline by only 24 to 36 cents — much less than in most other programs. Families that receive SNAP thus have a strong incentive to work longer hours or to search for better-paying employment. States further support work through the SNAP Employment and Training program, which funds training and work activities for unemployed adults who receive SNAP.”
So while in 1989, 42% of families receiving food stamps also received cash assistance, that portion had dropped to less than 10% by 2009.
Around 2/3 of food stamp recipients are not expected to work because they are senior citizens on a reduced income, people with disabilities, or children.
The remaining third of SNAP households have at least one working-age, non-disabled adult. Of these, more than half work while receiving SNAP — and more than 80 percent work in the year before or after receiving SNAP. The rates are even higher for families with children.
As stated above, work requirements for food stamps were put back in place in 2016. The benefits are intended as short-term assistance for those who work until they can get back on their feet.
Unfortunately, a growing number of SNAP households are employed. They’re working but still can’t get by. These are households in which one of the two wage-earners lost their job or became disabled. Or they are among the increasing numbers of Americans who are in low-wage jobs or are not getting enough hours to cover rising rents, heating, health care costs, and other necessary expenses, including food.
The food stamp program is not full of widespread waste, fraud, and abuse.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees SNAP, takes food stamp fraud seriously. It reports that the SNAP trafficking rate – people who sell food stamps for cash – has fallen significantly, from about 4 cents on the dollar in 1993 to about 1 cent in 2006-08 (last data available). Furthermore, money lost to SNAP waste and abuse is a drop in the bucket compared to the $125 billion the U.S. Department of Defense is wasting. This department has never even been audited, yet our current president wants to give it more.
One could say, however, that it’s companies like WalMart and McDonald’s who are abusing welfare, turning food stamps and other assistance programs into a government subsidy for low wages. Companies make high profits by paying poverty-wages. But then it’s on government and taxpayers – including those employees – to make up the difference. (To the tune of $2.6 billion/year for WalMart and $1.2 billion/year for McDonalds.)
Is food stamp spending smart?
According to a 2016 White House Council of Economic Advisers report (which the Trump administration removed from the White House website):
A growing body of high-quality research shows that SNAP is highly effective at reducing food insecurity, and in turn has important short-run and long-run benefits for low-income families. SNAP’s benefits are especially evident and wide-ranging for those who receive food assistance as children; they extend beyond the immediate goal of alleviating hunger and include improvements in short-run health and academic performance as well as in long-run health, educational attainment, and economic self-sufficiency.”
Additionally, spending on food assistance helps the economy more than any other stimulus spending. Each $5 of federal food stamp benefits generates an estimated $9.00 in economic activity. How? Those dollars go to people living paycheck to paycheck. They immediately spend the benefits on food. This leaves them more income to spend on other things, which boosts our economy and helps create jobs.
Why are any cuts morally wrong?
There is broad public support for a strong safety net in our country, the richest on the planet. Yet elected officials constantly tell us that while the U.S. can afford endless tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy it must tighten its belt when it comes to the programs that help set basic living standards.
Legislators should not balance budgets on the backs of working people and vulnerable households, especially when roughly one in eight Americans are living in poverty at any given time.