SNAP is successful because it treats recipients with dignity and autonomy

SNAP is successful because it treats recipients with dignity and autonomy
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The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program) is the most critical component of the social safety net in the U.S. today. Fortunately, studies shown that it is extraordinarily successful in achieving its main goal of reducing food insecurity and hunger and, in addition, it improves the well-being of low-income Americans over multiple other dimensions.

SNAP is an astounding success for a number of reasons. Of particular importance is the dignity and autonomy it gives recipients. Beyond the rule that benefits can only be spent on food at approved stores, SNAP customers are given the freedom to choose the grocery items they feel are most appropriate for their families and their budgets.

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Due in part to this autonomy, using SNAP does not carry the stigma of other assistance programs that impose restrictions and mechanisms that can be condescending and patronizing – and drive down participation for those who badly need the help. In other words, SNAP treats those who are going through tough times with dignity and provides them with a sense of normalcy, from the grocery store checkout line, to the kitchen at home with their families.

 

Despite the success of SNAP, some have sought to undermine the program. Recently, this has taken the form of a Trump administration proposal to give SNAP recipients so-called “Harvest Boxes” as a portion of their benefits. This was roundly criticized by anti-hunger groups and other organizations because it would undermine the dignity and autonomy of SNAP recipients and, in the process, would lead to increases in food insecurity and hunger.

Alas, a similar proposal has surfaced that, if implemented, would lead to the same set of consequences. This proposal, to restrict SNAP recipients from using their benefits to purchase “Sugar Sweetened Beverages” (SSBs), is part of a broader set of proposals issued by the Bipartisan Policy Committee (BPC) SNAP Task Force.

This recommendation to impose restrictions on SNAP recipients is based on the impression that SNAP recipients make food purchases that differ dramatically from similar households and that SNAP recipients are more likely to be obese.

This impression though, is wrong. Instead, credible research has shown again and again that the diets of SNAP recipients are essentially the same as eligible non-recipients and that SNAP has no impact on obesity and, in some studies, SNAP recipients are actually at lower risk of being obese. In light of this body of research, the USDA has correctly resisted efforts to impose restrictions on SNAP benefits.

Those of us who are concerned with maintaining the dignity and well-being of low-income Americans hope that the USDA will continue to resist these efforts. If, instead, restrictions on SSB purchases are imposed there will be several consequences.

First, this would create an arbitrary government food code which designates some foods as “good” and some foods as “bad.” And such a policy would increase costs and red tape for businesses which would be forced to analyze thousands upon thousands of products to determine what's SNAP-eligible.

Worse, restrictions could be the beginning of a slippery slope of government intrusion into other areas of our lives. What is to stop the government from deciding next that people on Medicare must follow a certain diet in order to be eligible for the program? Or, that all farmers receiving subsidies will need to spend those funds on only approved products as dictated by some government food code.

Of course, no one would think to impose these restrictions on farmers receiving subsidies. This takes us to our second point, namely, that restrictions on SSB purchases are condescending and patronizing to low-income Americans in ways that the USDA would never do to other segments of the population, including farmers or, for that matter, USDA employees.

This treatment of SNAP recipients as singularly incapable of making decisions will lead to a third, and most damaging, consequence of restrictions. Namely, an increase in food insecurity and hunger in our country.

One of the reasons why SNAP has been so successful at eliminating hunger is that it treats recipients with dignity and autonomy and trusts them to make purchasing decisions that are best for their families. After all, do we really want to tell a grandmother (4.8 million SNAP recipients are senior citizens) that she is not allowed to purchase what best fits her needs? When we start treating adults on SNAP as irresponsible, current and potential recipients will depart the program and, in the process, become at greater risk of hunger.

In total, SNAP restrictions would due grave damage to a program that has improved the well-being of Americans for over 50 years.

Craig Gundersen Ph.D. is a professor of agricultural and consumer economics at the University of Illinois.