All About SNAP

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a federal program that provides food assistance to low and no-income people and families living in the U.S. It is among the programs Congress has designated as mandatory spending (or entitlement). What this means is that if your situation deteriorates enough that you qualify, you can receive benefits regardless of others also needing support. When the recession hit in 2008/2009 SNAP immediately ramped up to help the greatly increased number of people in need. It took years for private charities to similarly ramp up. SNAP is doing the same right now for people impoverished by hurricanes and floods.

“Why are SNAP expenditures so high?” is a frequently asked question. Sadly, there is a simple answer for this: it’s because lots of people are truly poor. It’s not because people want to be on SNAP.  Applying is difficult. Work requirements limit benefits for able-bodied adults who do not have dependents. The value of the minimum wage has declined and the cost of living has not.

The answer should not be millions more people going hungry. The answer should be adjusting our economy so that anyone willing to work a full-time job is able to feed their own family. As people get good jobs, they will gladly see their SNAP benefits ended (once a certain income level is reached, SNAP benefits automatically end).

SNAP benefits are not generous. They are designed to run out after three weeks of a month, and they do. To feed their families, desperately poor people have to patch together SNAP, school meals, food pantries, etc. in the midst of extreme life challenges. Benefits are adjusted for family size, so seniors living alone often conclude that the application process is not worth the minimal benefit.

Periodically, there are suggestions that SNAP can be made more efficient by handing the program off to the states. The truth, however, is that the program is already very efficient:  >90% of funds go directly to beneficiaries. Many private charities cannot make that claim. Fraud rates are also already very low, despite the claims of people who want to sack the program. In fact, overhead could be even lower if SNAP administrators at the state level didn’t have to spend so much time assuring critics that no one wrongly receives benefits!

To those who suggest that charities simply replace SNAP — unfortunately, this idea is completely impractical. The reality is that 80-90% of food assistance provided to those in need from all sources is Federal. It comes through SNAP, school meals, WIC, commodities distributed through food banks, and senior nutrition programs. Churches and private charities in total can cover just 10-20% of the need.

Poverty is just too widespread for charities and churches to meet the need for food. With public and private, faith-based and secular, for-profit and not-for-profit all together we could meet the need. But only with everyone contributing.

The cuts that Congress is proposing will be devastating to those in need. Please contact your legislative representative and urge them to keep SNAP at its currently funded level.


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