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?
Legislators at both the federal and state level – 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.”
The fight continues to protect food assistance benefits as the first line of defense against both hunger and poverty. A key part of this is making sure people 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. The U.S. Congress 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. (Prepared foods and anything that’s not food is not allowed.) They are likely eating rice and beans and peanut butter sandwiches – and going hungry – the rest of the month as result.
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…
The U.S. Congress sets the rules and the funding for the food stamp program, and then states administer it. To be eligible for food stamps generally you must be at or below 130% of federal poverty level guidelines that determine whether you are living in poverty based on your household’s income and size. For a family of three, the poverty line used to calculate food stamps benefits as of 2016 is $1,675 a month. Thus, 130 percent of the poverty line for a three-person family is $2,177 a month, or about $26,100 a year.
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 between the ages of 18 and 59, and without dependents, can only receive food stamps for 3 months in a 3-year period unless they are 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. 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 based on our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Shouldn’t there be a war on hunger?
- Food stamp spending is a tiny fraction of overall government spending—just 2% in 2012. We spent 19% of the U.S. budget that year on defense.
- Unlike our overseas engagements, 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 those societal costs.
- Each dollar spent in food stamp benefits generates nearly double that in local 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, and 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 can be working, until they can get back on their feet.
Unfortunately, an increasing number of SNAP households have earnings, which means these are households in which one of the two wage-earners lost their job, or increasing numbers of Americans are in lower-wage jobs or not getting enough hours to cover rising rents, heating, health care costs, and other necessary expenses, including food.
Food stamp enrollment has NOT grown due to 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, there is much less fraud in the food stamp program than the hundreds of millions of dollars in fraud in the farm programs that other members of Congress seem determined to protect.
One could say, however, that it’s employers like WalMart and McDonalds who are abusing welfare. When they make high profits by keeping their employees in poverty, then SNAP becomes a form of corporate subsidy for low wages whereby the government and taxpayers have to make up the difference.
Is food stamp spending smart?
According to a recent White House report,
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 $1 of federal food stamp benefits generates an estimated $1.80 in economic activity. How? Those dollars go to people living paycheck to paycheck who will turn around and spend them immediately.
Why are any cuts morally wrong?
Despite broad public support for a strong safety net, Congress is telling Americans that the richest country on the planet can afford tax cuts to corporations but must tighten its belt by cutting the safety net programs that help vulnerable citizens. Legislators should not shrink budget deficits by increasing human misery and suffering, especially when one in eight Americans live in poverty.