The Freedom Caucus Is Coming for SNAP

The Freedom Caucus Is Coming for SNAP

Food stamps have a problematic place in progressive views of the social welfare safety net. But the program works, and it needs our support.

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The so-called Freedom Caucus, the hard-right faction of congressmembers who are willing to shut down the government to get deep spending cuts, has long had it in for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. In fact, former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s reluctance to abrogate his debt-ceiling deal with President Biden and demand more cuts in SNAP fed into his ouster by the nihilist faction he once led. His eventual replacement, Mike Johnson, is outspoken in his disdain for the program, and only entreaties by farm state Republicans desperate to preserve commodity programs kept Johnson from derailing a one-year extension authorizing farm and nutrition programs, including SNAP.

But, as per the horror films, they’re back, demanding a new round of program cuts as Congress struggles to avoid yet another federal shutdown come February. Progressives cannot afford to allow this to happen. SNAP is not just a food assistance program; it is an essential anti-poverty tool that we can ill afford to lose.

SNAP has a problematic place in progressive views of the social welfare safety net. Many on the left are lukewarm about it, just as they are about other in-kind programs like Section 8 housing vouchers, largely because these programs don’t provide cash. As a result, they see efforts to improve program access and benefits as putting lipstick on the proverbial pig.

Yes, cash is the most effective and efficient way to lift households out of poverty. But despite the results of a raft of promising local pilot programs offering a guaranteed basic income, Congress won’t be embracing more cash assistance anytime soon. There is little interest in increasing the Transitional Assistance to Needy Families block grant, which has been locked in at $16.5 billion since 1997 and with inflation has lost 45 percent of its purchasing power. Even compelling evidence that pandemic “emergency” cash assistance helped to keep poverty rates stable—and reduced them for households with children—did not matter. Congress did not even renew a pandemic-era child tax credit after some senators demanded more work requirements (for the parents, one presumes).

That’s why progressives need to protect—and expand—SNAP now. Congressional Republicans will keep coming for it, so we can’t afford to sit on our hands, waiting for the ideal anti-poverty program to come along. SNAP exists, and is an essential part of the social safety net. Equally important, and rare among social welfare programs, SNAP has solid support among Republican and Democratic voters. While a guaranteed minimum income remains the goal, right now the left should push hard to expand SNAP benefits and enrollment rates.

A refresher: SNAP is the nation’s largest food assistance program, in 2022 supplementing the food purchasing power of some 42 million Americans—12.5 percent of the population—at a cost of $120 billion. Benefit levels are adjusted for household size and monthly income, with deductions for basic needs (rent, heat, etc.) and an automobile. In August 2023 the average monthly household benefit was $340, roughly where it was in March 2020 before pandemic supplements provided another $100 per month; those ended in February 2023, leading predictably to increases in food insecurity. Benefits are deposited as dollar amounts into an electronic benefits transfer debit card, which enrollees can use at participating food retailers, from Walmart to the local bodega. Some restrictions aside, SNAP enrollees enjoy same ability to choose food products as any other Americans consumer.

Without SNAP, rates of food insecurity, even outright hunger, would increase dramatically, especially among households with children. And it’s not just about access to food; food security is linked to better health outcomes, improved educational attainment, and great labor force participation. So SNAP makes a difference, and in budget terms is now the nation’s second-largest anti-poverty program for the non-elderly, after the Earned Income Tax Credit (another “indirect” form of support).

More to the point, SNAP also is an effective anti-poverty program. Unlike cash welfare systems where enrollees faced sharp benefits “cliffs” if their incomes increased, SNAP benefits adjust gradually with monthly household income, up to 130 percent above the federal poverty line, and there is little evidence that SNAP creates disincentives against work. Also, unlike TANF, SNAP benefits are adjusted for inflation, an essential factor when food prices spike.

But to many conservatives SNAP still is “welfare,” and they keep trying to restrict enrollment and spending. Yet, despite decades of conservative antipathy, SNAP endures, and 2024 marks the 60th anniversary since passage of the Food Stamp Act.

How? First, it’s about food. Americans dislike “welfare” in an abstract sense, but they don’t want to see fellow Americans go hungry in a nation awash in food. Even many conservatives can abide SNAP so long as it is directed at the “truly” needy. And because benefits only can be used on food—urban legends notwithstanding—SNAP escapes most tropes about the poor being unwise with their money.

SNAP also has many friends, starting with the food industry, for which the program is a multibillion-dollar subsidy in an often thin-margin business. Walmart loves SNAP, as does Kraft Heinz, as does your local market—because it enables more Americans to spend more on food. Recent state and federal initiatives to provide “healthy incentives” bonus benefits for use at farmers markets has made it easier for SNAP households to purchase fresh local produce and support local farmers. What is not to like?

So, SNAP must be preserved, and improved. There are three immediate priorities.

First, lessen discretion in how states administer program enrollment and renewal processes. Some make it too hard for the otherwise eligible to enroll. Where you live should not determine whether you have a decent diet.

Second, eliminate SNAP’s work rules, which require that “able-bodied adults” work a certain number of hours a month or enroll in job training programs to keep their benefits, the theory being that such rules incentivize work. But stringent work rules have little practical impact beyond keeping eligible adults from getting benefits, and are cumbersome and costly to enforce—so much so that states often seek to waive them. While keeping work rules has been the cost of doing business on Capitol Hill, the programmatically suboptimal being the politically necessary, they need to go.

Finally, reverse President Reagan’s decision to replace Puerto Rico’s participation in the program with what has been an insufficient block grant. Puerto Ricans are Americans too, even if they live in San Juan, not Orlando.

But, overall, SNAP works. That’s no small achievement.

The Freedom Caucus crowd will be back, and the left cannot afford to stand idly by, awaiting the push for the guaranteed minimum income. Until that day comes, don’t let the perfect get in the way of the pretty good.

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