Is There a Better Way?

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SNAP has been a political football, kicked around so much by politicians that many people are uncomfortable with the program, though they know little about it. How does SNAP, our nation’s leading food assistance program, work? From a 40,000 ft. level view it’s really pretty straightforward. Congress determines eligibility guidelines and provides the funding. SNAP is then administered by state agencies. Here in Indiana it’s run by the Family and Social Services Agency (FSSA). Individuals in need of assistance apply to FSSA, and they determine whether the applicant qualifies. This is based primarily on income and assets.

If the person qualifies, they receive an EBT card which they can take to a nearby grocery store and use to buy food. Each month the cards are reloaded. If a person’s income improves, their benefit is reduced or eliminated.

It’s a classic public private partnership and it works well – the public sector confirms eligibility and the private sector delivers the goods.

I have a friend who’s been heavily involved in food pantries. He really wanted there to be a better program than SNAP. How could it be better? We sat down with a clean sheet of paper – if we were designing it from scratch, how would we do it?

Even with their armies of volunteers (free labor), pantries are no substitute for commercial groceries. Selection is limited, especially for anyone with dietary limitations, and hours are very limited. Handling practices are grossly inefficient, and there is no possibility to scale up 10X if they were asked to cover all of what SNAP does. Plus, such a move would create even more food deserts by driving grocery stores out due to loss of SNAP sales.

A simple cash transfer to all families is used in some countries. This cuts down on overhead, but would never be accepted in the US.

Government could try to save some money by negotiating prices like they do for WIC or requiring the rebate of a percentage of sales. The grocery business is a low margin business, so there is not a lot to be gained and, again, it would likely create more food deserts.

At the end of the day my friend and I just could not conjure up a better system. SNAP may be a bit like democracy. Winston Churchill said “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” There just is not a better approach than SNAP for providing food for large numbers of hungry Americans.

Don’t be confused by talk of block grants, “flexibility” for states, and other measures. Some may not like SNAP, but it works.  Please let your Representative and Senators know that you oppose cuts to SNAP.

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