Comment: SNAP food aid needs reforms; work mandate isn’t one

Adding older Americans to its work requirement won’t save much money and won’t prompt many to find work.

By Claudia Sahm / Bloomberg Opinion

This year Congress needs to reauthorize the Farm Bill, of which the largest portion is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or better known as food stamps. It’s the primary program to reduce hunger among low-income individuals and families. Before the covid-19 pandemic, about 11 percent of Americans received some benefits, close to its average participation rate since the 1990s. However, participation moves substantially with macroeconomic conditions and overall family incomes.

In addition to being a crucial safety net, SNAP is also contentious. A long-standing concern is that the program discourages people from working. To address that, the benefits for adults age 18 to 49 who are not disabled and live in childless households expire after three months unless they are working or in an educational or training program. Even so, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, less than 30 percent of adults in this group had earned income in 2019. This partly reflects other discretionary exclusions from the work requirement, like being physically or mentally unfit to work.

Two proposals from Republican lawmakers would tighten the rules. Rep. Dustin Johnson of South Dakota wants to expand the work requirement through age 65, while Rep. Rick Scott of Florida favors raising it through age 59. Scott’s proposal would add only 1 million households to the work requirement out of the almost 19 million households receiving SNAP. Those affected currently receive $2 billion in benefits, or less than 4 percent of the $52.8 billion total for the program.

Moreover, the existing work requirements in SNAP have done little to encourage work and, instead, increase food insecurity due to lost benefits. University of Maryland Professor Mary Zaki and her co-authors estimate, based on Virginia data, that the work requirement halved the participation rate for adults subject to it. The homeless and those without income before receiving SNAP accounted for much of that reduction. They also found that the work requirement did not increase the likelihood of working. Other studies that have found an increase in employment generally estimate it to be small. Plus, collecting information on work status for more individuals would add to the administrative program costs.

Expanding the group of adults subject to work requirements would not increase economic self-sufficiency or reduce program costs much, given the small number of people and dollars in the age extension. Instead, it would put those individuals at risk of losing their benefits and being unable to afford food.

Other reforms would improve its cost-effectiveness and strengthen food security.

The first reform should be improving SNAP’s administrative system. In 2019, the costs of running SNAP equaled 8 percent of the $60 billion budget. A technology overhaul would standardize the procedures across states — which administer SNAP — and streamline the processes and tools for applying, screening, and recertifying benefits. Some states have already experimented with improvements, and the Farm Bill could allocate money to extend best practices nationally. The complexity of the current system adds costs and leads to inequities. For example, while the overall takeup rate was 82 percent in 2019, it is almost half that for the elderly; a group who particularly struggle with the administrative burden.

Next, additional money to buy food is essential for these families, and policymakers should also take steps to encourage a greater supply of affordable, nutritious food. In 2021, according to the USDA, 13.5 million Americans lived in a food desert, defined as a low-income community without access to a large grocery store. As a result, they rely on typically higher-cost, less nutritious options like gas stations or convenience stores. There are systematic differences in who is likely to live in a food desert, including people of color, those less educated and those living in rural areas. One proposal to reduce food deserts is the Healthy Food Access for All Americans Act from Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. It would combine tax credits and grants to bring grocery stores, food banks, and farmers markets into food deserts. It’s an example of an initiative that would complement SNAP and make the dollars go further.

Finally, the goal of SNAP is to provide food security and nutrition for people with low income. Still, the regular benefits are often insufficient, say researchers at the Center for Budget and Policy and Priorities, a left-leaning think tank. In 2019, the SNAP benefits averaged about $1.40 per meal. As the name says, the program is meant to supplement, not cover, food costs. Even so, that’s not much. During the pandemic, the benefit amount increased to $1.75 per meal, on average, per person.

Unlike in the Great Recession, according to USDA analysis, food insecurity did not rise during the pandemic. The Urban Institute, a left-leaning think tank, estimates that extra benefits reduced the poverty rate by 9.6 percent and the child poverty rate by 14 percent. But the additional benefits expired last month, and families face the difficult math of their grocery bills again. The Farm Bill would be an opportunity to raise benefit amounts, especially considering the beneficial outcomes of the temporary increases.

Putting food on the table is a necessity. SNAP currently supports low-income families in meeting that need, and lawmakers, as they consider the Farm Bill this year, have an opportunity to do more.

Claudia Sahm is the founder of Sahm Consulting and a former Federal Reserve economist. She is the creator of the Sahm rule, a recession indicator.

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