Strengthening SNAP must be a priority for US

At some point in their lives, most Americans will need help from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Researchers estimate that half of all American children will receive SNAP at some point during childhood and, separate from that, half of all adults will participate at some point between the ages of 20 and 65. Millions more receive help as seniors. Today, one in seven Americans lives in a household relying on SNAP — typically for just a few months — to help put food on the table. They are from low-paid working families and unemployed families; children, seniors, parents, people with disabilities and others struggling in this economy. SNAP not only relieves hunger today — it boosts nutrition and health over the long term.

The recession and period since underscore another SNAP strength. As jobs disappeared and wages stagnated, SNAP has worked just as it was designed to work — reaching those who suddenly needed help affording food. The ability of SNAP to expand in such challenging economic times and then retract when times improve makes it one of the most effective and best-designed government programs. 

One shortcoming of SNAP, however, is that its benefits are not adequate to get most families through the month. Researchers, advocates and food pantries have been saying this for years, but last month the prestigious Institute of Medicine, after a thorough study, similarly concluded that the SNAP allotment is not enough for most families. Because inadequate benefits in SNAP harm health, early childhood development and learning, fixing the problem (rather than cutting SNAP’s funding) is essential to the nation’s social, economic and fiscal goals. It is not an accident that every major bipartisan deficit-reduction proposal from the last few years — Simpson-Bowles, Domenici-Rivlin, the so-called “Gang of Six” proposal and others — has left SNAP untouched by cuts.

As Congress starts fresh on a farm bill this year, not just protecting but strengthening SNAP must be a top priority. Recent proposals in Congress that go in the other direction — that cut SNAP benefits by billions of dollars — would worsen health and hunger for struggling children, seniors and working families. Some of the flaws to which the IOM committee points (e.g., the lag in SNAP benefits keeping up with inflation, and the failure to fully account for shelter costs) are due to previous cuts made by Congress. Congress needs to fix the problems rather than doubling down on harming the most vulnerable Americans.

This starts by fixing the looming “hunger cliff”: SNAP participants will see their benefits drop this fall as cuts made by a 2010 law take effect. Cuts proposed in the Senate and by the House Agriculture Committee last year would have further reduced benefits for many more, and pushed many out of the program altogether.

The cuts need to stop, and the conversation needs to change. This is a fresh opportunity for Congress to look at SNAP and make improvements that extend its ability to help those who have fallen on hard times. 

Reducing the deficit cannot — and should not — be accomplished by cutting programs that are a lifeline for millions of low-income Americans. There are many smarter and fairer ways to strengthen the nation’s economy and solve long-term deficit problems. It’s time for Congress to invest in SNAP so it can be an even stronger first line of defense against hunger for the nation. 

Weill is the president of the Food Research and Action Center.