Oh, SNAP.

33921116_sA couple of nights ago, I posted a link to an article on my Facebook feed about the SNAP (or “food stamps”) program.  The NY Times article, “In the Shopping Cart of a Food Stamp Household: Lots of Soda” (written by Anahad O’Connor), suggested – and was reinforced by the headline and photo used – that families on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) spend their benefits on junk food and soda.

I had linked to another Facebook post by a gentleman named Joe Soss.  Mr. Soss provided a rebuttal of that NY Times article, suggesting that the original study was misused in the article.  Since then, Talk Poverty has also picked up the story and expands on Mr. Soss’ original post.  While the article seems to question whether families receiving SNAP should be able to purchase “junk food” with their benefits, the underlying USDA survey actually found very few differences from the spending habits families on SNAP and those who are not.

Passion and Productivity sometimes don’t mix

My post sparked the passion of several of my friends, and I have a huge amount of respect for the amazing women who shared their feelings.  They came into the conversation about SNAP benefits from very different backgrounds, and those experiences created the strong feelings that they have on the topic.  Unfortunately, sometimes that passion can cloud our ability to address each other with empathy and respect, and it was the first time that I felt compelled to delete a Facebook post.  

Having deleted the post, though, I still wanted to present their viewpoints (to the best of my ability) and provide my thoughts.  There were two big issues that became contentious:

  1. How much fraud happens within the SNAP benefits program – and how much does it matter?
  2. Should those who receive SNAP benefits be restricted in what they are allowed to purchase, limiting junk food and other non-essential food items?

Food Stamp Fraud?

There was a heated discussion about the prevalence of SNAP benefit fraud in the Facebook thread.  One individual has witnessed individuals who have sold their benefits (or food purchased with their benefits) for cash, and suspects that those individuals have used the money to support a drug habit.  For this reason, it is extremely hard for her to feel positively about the program, particularly as an unemployed mom who struggles to make ends meet for her own family and does not qualify for the benefits.

It’s really hard to argue with that experience.  The official statistics on food stamp fraud show that there is a 1.3% rate of “trafficking” in SNAP benefits, according to a 2013 USDA report.  (These appear to be the most current numbers.)  What is critical to understand is the definition of this fraud:  “Trafficking” is defined as users who trade their SNAP benefits to food retailers for cash, typically at a discount.  Individuals who may purchase and then sell the food for cash would not fall under this type of fraud, and these incidents are likely not captured in the total fraud statistics.

If there is unmeasured fraud within the system, is it enough to warrant major changes to the SNAP program?  It’s really difficult to tell taxpayers struggling to make ends meet that even though they see abuses, this program is far more valuable than it is wasteful.  However…

There will always be some individuals who seek to abuse the system; creating a 100% fraud-proof system is impossible, and we’ll spend far more taxpayer dollars trying to eliminate fraud than the cost of the fraud itself.  The SNAP program is one of the most efficient federal programs in terms of administrative overhead (~7% of total budget, with 93% going directly to beneficiaries) and in error rates in distribution.  And the benefit that it offers to our entire society by reducing extreme poverty and providing a safety net for families and individuals to get back onto their feet during difficult times is significant.

Limit the Grocery Items Available?

38611885 - detail of a person shopping in a supermarketThe second issue, and possibly the more contentious one, was an issue of whether or not SNAP recipients should be more restricted in the grocery items that they may purchase.  Should someone on SNAP be able to purchase junk food and soda?  What about steak and lobster?  How about exotic and expensive fruits and vegetables?  Organic items that are more costly?

There are rules established on SNAP benefits that  limit what can be purchased to food items, excluding things like prepared foods.  However, beyond that, the individual beneficiary makes the decisions about what foods to purchase.  Here is where things get complicated.

  • Are there some choices that would appear better than others?  Of course.  I will admit to having judgement if I see someone buying expensive food items using their SNAP benefits.
  • Can such a purchase be justified for special occasions, or if the individual has truly saved up for something?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  
  • Should I be allowed to have an opinion because I’m a taxpayer?  I understand why the answer feels like it should be yes, but no.  We all deserve the dignity of personal decision making, and even if you are receiving government assistance, you are an individual with the ability to make decisions for yourself.  

Setting limits becomes a slippery slope.  If we don’t allow the purchase of lobster, should we also take away expensive fresh vegetables?  If we start limiting items based on cost, then junk food is more attractive, because it’s cheap.  If we also limit food that does not provide high nutritional value (and that has been proposed in Tennessee), we start to narrow down the choices exponentially.   We end up with a program that provides almost no value, and has higher overhead costs to manage the regulations.

Accountability?  Of course.

Should the SNAP program – and all government benefit programs – be continuously monitored and held accountable for results?  YES.  So many people are opposed to “big government” because of the waste and inefficiencies in the programs, and they are not wrong.  Many government programs are poorly managed, with little oversight and no accountability.  We need to stand up as voters and demand that oversight – and insist that we fund programs that work – and change or remove programs that don’t.  We also have to admit that no program is without issues – cracks that folks can fall through, and loopholes that others can sneak through.  We do the best to patch those holes and keep moving forward.

SNAP works in a highly effective and efficient manner.  This is one of the good ones, and we really need to work to protect it.

A note on fostering the conversation

PLEASE keep talking to each other and sharing your point of view.  If something makes you angry, help the rest of us to understand why.  I know you don’t all agree with me – and I hope you will tell me why and help me to learn.  Comment, ask questions, provide links, or suggest further research!

One thought on “Oh, SNAP.

  1. I received a really great comment sent via private message, and I wanted to try to address it.

    “This is supposed to be a supplement to your own food buying, but if you look at a family of 4, the amount max is $689. I by far don’t spend that much money on food in a month, so don’t understand why anybody would need that much to just supplement their own income.”

    I had to do some digging on this one to find out how individual benefits are calculated. I found what I was looking for on this site (http://www.cbpp.org/research/a-quick-guide-to-snap-eligibility-and-benefits) under “Example: Calculating a Household’s Monthly SNAP Benefits”.

    The maximum benefit of $689 would only be provided to a family of 4 with no reportable income. So this would not be a supplement for income, but rather would be for a family that had absolutely no income. (That amounts to less than $2 per meal per person, assuming 3 meals per day for 30 days. School aged kids may receive free lunches, but if the kids are not yet in school or if the family includes elderly or disabled individuals, that math is accurate.)

    What is interesting, though, is to look at how those benefits are calculated. The gross income of the family is taken into account, and then standard earnings deductions and optional childcare deductions are taken out to determine net income. (This ends up being similar to a family’s “take home” income after taxes.) Then the net income is further reduced by shelter deductions, and finally 30% of the remaining income is expected to be spent towards food by the family. So that last 30% of income is subtracted from the maximum benefit available.

    I also want to point out that I helped a number of individuals fill out SNAP applications a few years ago. The application process takes into account all of the individuals who live in the house who may either a.) be dependent on the household groceries and b.) contribute to the household income. If Grandma lives in the house and receives Social Security, her income is included in the calculation.

    You may still want to argue that the amounts are too high – and that’s a debate worth having, (although I can’t imagine trying to feed a family consistently on $2/person/meal) – but we should just make sure that we’re looking at the right calculations. $689 is the maximum amount a family of four is expected to spend on groceries, and if there is income in the family, 30% of the family’s net income (minus housing costs) is expected to go to food first. The shortfall is covered by SNAP.

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