SNAP to it

False stereotypes about what people supposedly can buy with food stamps ignore reality


When members of Congress return to Washington next week, they will face the pressing task of adequately funding the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly called food stamps. Nearly 50 million Americans, including more than 1.8 million Ohioans, rely on the assistance to get enough to eat.

The Senate and House will have only three weeks, until the end of the fiscal year, to reconcile the Senate’s proposed $4 billion in cuts to SNAP with the $40 billion in cuts proposed by House Republican leaders. Even a cut of $4 billion would result in 500,000 households losing $90 a month in SNAP benefits, the Congressional Budget Office estimates.

The need today for U.S. food assistance is probably the greatest since the Great Depression. Any cuts to SNAP now are unacceptable, but the GOP plan would deny benefits to millions of the neediest and most vulnerable Americans, and would reduce already scanty benefits to untenable levels.

Even current benefit levels — in Ohio, about $135 per person per month, or $4.50 a day — aren’t adequate. When the 2009 stimulus boost goes away on Nov. 1, a family of four will lose $36 a month in food aid, costing Ohio $193 million in the next fiscal year, the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates.

Theories about what people can buy with $4 a day ignore the fact that many SNAP recipients live, often without vehicles, in urban food deserts. They can’t get to supermarkets, or buy healthy, unprocessed foods at reasonable costs.

SNAP benefits one out of every six residents in Ohio, nearly half of them children. At least 15 percent of SNAP recipients — an estimated 260,000 people in Ohio — have no cash income; many are likely homeless. If they all stood together, they would make up a city nearly as large as Toledo.

Any member of Congress who hit the streets during the August recess should understand how important it is to fund SNAP fully. House members who still don’t get it ought to agree to hold hearings on food stamps and listen to the stories of real people.

For decades, the food stamp program had solid bipartisan support, including from conservative stalwarts such as former GOP Sen. Bob Dole. No more.

For the first time in nearly 40 years, Congress separated the food stamp program from the farm bill, which provides farmers with subsidies, direct payments, and crop insurance. That ends an alliance — really a shotgun marriage — of urban and rural interests. It’s outrageous that Congress is poised to cut aid to the poorest Americans while continuing to offer fat subsidies to factory farms.

Overwhelmed food banks are watching Washington with wide eyes. The private sector can’t pick up the slack if SNAP funding is cut significantly.

A $40-billion cut in SNAP, for example, would require every church, synagogue, and mosque in the nation to contribute, on average, $114,000 to make up the difference, said Ken Patterson of RESULTS, an anti-poverty advocacy group. “Cuts will mean more hunger, especially when unemployment rates are still high and millions of Americans earn little more than the minimum wage,” he said.

Nearly half of SNAP recipients work, and one in four eligible Americans doesn’t sign up. The SNAP program costs roughly $80 billion a year.

Almost half of all American children are expected to receive SNAP assistance at some time in their childhood. A recent University of California at Davis study, examining early childhood access to food stamps, found that children who got assistance were healthier, better educated, wealthier, and more self-reliant as adults than those children who did not.

Moreover, SNAP assistance is immediately injected into the local economy. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that every $1 spent on SNAP generates $1.70 in economic activity. Federally funded food stamps, now electronic plastic debit cards, bring about $2 billion a year into Ohio.

Lawmakers must have the good sense and compassion to fund fully America’s frontline defense against hunger.