Will Policymakers Increase Food Insecurity in the USA – or Decrease Dependency on the Government?

Lynn Adams
Sep 19, 2013

The House passed a bill today that will drastically cut funding to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the country’s largest domestic food aid program (formerly known as food stamps). Despite strong opposition from Democrats and the threat of a veto from the President, the Nutrition Reform and Work Opportunity Act of 2013 passed largely along party lines on a vote of 217 to 210.

The Census bureau reports that approximately 46.5 million households in the United States lived in poverty in 2012, one of the highest numbers in two decades. They also estimate that SNAP kept approximately 4 million people above the poverty level and prevented millions more from dropping further into poverty. What would be the impact of this bill should it become law? According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the bill would cut SNAP spending by 5% or $39 billion over the next 10 years. This means that approximately 3.8 million people would be cut from the program in 2014, and then 3 million people would be cut in each subsequent year.

Opponents of the bill claim that the cuts would fall disproportionately on children, seniors, the disabled and veterans. Leading Democrats have called the bill, “dangerous, mean, and disastrous for millions of Americans”. Alternatively, proponents claim that the bill is needed to reign in SNAP, which costs the government nearly $80 billion a year, a cost that has doubled since 2008. Republicans claim that the bill will lift families out of poverty while putting the country on a "fiscally responsible path".

Putting aside partisan posturing, what are the facts here? The cuts proposed in the bill would be achieved through reforms like requiring (able bodied) adults between 18 and 50 with no minor children to find a job or enroll in a work-training program in order to receive benefits, tightening eligibility requirements like policies that allow states to determine SNAP eligibility through participation in other welfare programs, and limiting the time that recipients could get benefits to three months. In addition, the bill would permit drug testing of food stamp recipients and cease payments to lottery winners. On the surface, the bill appears to spare those with children and the elderly, and encourage a decrease in unemployment, assuming it works the way it is intended.

Is the debate worth the hype? According to the CBO, even with the cuts SNAP will still cost the government more than $700 billion over the next 10 years. They also estimate that, left unchanged, the number of food stamp recipients would naturally decline by approximately 30 percent (14 million people) over the next 10 years due to projected improvements in the economy.

This leaves us with some questions: will the proposed changes to SNAP encourage those who are most able to do so find jobs, thereby decreasing their dependency on government assistance, or will the outcome spell disaster for people living on the edge; should the program be left as it is, with the expectation that the economy will improve and shrink the program; and do the proposed changes cut government spending enough to make a difference?

The argument may be moot, as there is little chance the bill will pass in the senate, and if by some wild chance it did, the President would veto it anyway. However, the debate is important for assessing future proposals to government assistance programs.

What do you think?

Photo credit: Steve Holt at www.takepart.com

Lynn Adams

Lynn S. Adams, Ph.D. is an Alumni Fellow. She blogs about nutrition policy, the connections between nutrition and disease risk, the health effects of environmental exposures and the cancer prevention potential of natural products at Sci on the Fly. If you want Lynn to share her posts with you, follow her on Twitter: @lstedda68.

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