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Stretching SNAP to Give Families More Nutrients
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP (known as food stamps until 2008), is the country’s first line of defense against hunger. Anyone who meets the eligibility requirements is able to participate. This legal “entitlement” – meaning that the program expands to serve all those eligible – explains why, when unemployment and poverty rates soared during the Great Recession, hunger rates did not rise dramatically.
So there’s no doubt that SNAP helps tens of millions of Americans afford groceries in tough economic times. Poverty does not automatically mean hunger in our country, because SNAP is a reliable safety net. In recent years, Bread for the World members have been spending significant time and energy defending SNAP from policy changes that increase hunger – largely successfully. Recently on Institute Notes, we explained how states can grow their economies by using a SNAP policy option called Heat and Eat, even as the 2014 farm bill made it more expensive for them to do so.
But in the midst of our focus on playing defense, it is important to remember that improvements in SNAP would serve its participants better. The fact is, even the max imum monthly SNAP benefit is often not enough for a family to afford sufficient amounts of healthy food.
Here are two ways to help ensure that all SNAP participants can afford a healthy diet.
First, USDA could more accurately consider the burden of the high housing costs borne by many low-income people. The USDA formula allows households that would otherwise get less than the maximum benefit to get more SNAP benefits when they have “excess” housing and utility expenses. But these expenses are only considered “excess” when they are greater than 50 percent of a household’s net income, even though the federal government has long recognized that housing is only affordable when it costs less than 30 percent of income. It would be better to start SNAP’s excess shelter cost deduction when a household is paying more than 30 percent of its net income for housing, instead of the current 50 percent. In addition, all households could be allowed to deduct their full utility and excess housing expenses; there is currently a cap that applies to households without elderly or disabled members.
For example, let’s consider a parent and child living in Washington, DC. This family is lucky: DC’s minimum wage just went up to $9.50 an hour, so a full-time minimum-wage job would pay about $1,634 a month. Let’s say they’re luckier still— they have no child care expenses and no disabilities, and they are able to find an apartment for $735 a month (that’s 45 percent of their gross income, but still far less than the Fair Market Rent for a one-bedroom apartment in DC). Such a family would qualify for $138 a month in SNAP benefits, well under the two-person maximum of $347 a month. But if SNAP rules changed to consider the full impact of the family’s high housing costs, this parent and child would receive more than $50 in additional SNAP benefits every month.
A second idea: SNAP benefit levels could be based on the USDA Low-Cost Food Plan, instead of the more restrictive Thrifty Food Plan. The Thrifty Food Plan was designed for short-term emergency use, as the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) notes, and SNAP is generally the only place where the government uses it as a basis for people’s longer-term diets. Basing benefits on the Low-Cost Food Plan would give households more money, enabling SNAP benefits to be stretched to cover the full month and enabling people to purchase healthier foods, which are often more expensive.
SNAP’s Heat and Eat provision is an important part of the nation’s nutrition safety net, but there is more that states and the federal government can do to make SNAP as effective as possible in allowing everyone to afford a healthy diet. Making these two policy changes would be a good start.
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