SNAP Helps Families Manage Economic Shocks and Equalizes the Safety Net across States
A Blog from APPAM Policy Council Member Lucie Schmidt and her Williams College colleagues, Lara Shore-Sheppard, and Tara Watson
This year, the House Agriculture Committee will hold hearings on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). SNAP (formerly Food Stamps) was expanded in 2009 in response to the economic crisis, and the number of recipients and spending on the program grew rapidly during the Great Recession. Last year modest cuts were made to SNAP, but current congressional efforts to overhaul the program might translate into much larger program reductions.
Does SNAP matter? Our research shows that when states increase their safety net generosity (food and cash programs combined), single parent families under 300 percent of the poverty line experience substantially less food insecurity. About a third of these families are food insecure. However, when the safety net becomes more generous, families are both less worried about financing food consumption and less likely to skip a meal or go hungry. The safety net significantly reduces food insecurity.
Our research suggests that both cash and food benefits help low-income families avoid going hungry. Many states have reduced their cash assistance programs, leaving SNAP as one of the last threads of the American safety net. Without SNAP, some individuals now have no back-up plan when hardship occurs.
In addition, SNAP helps to equalize the safety net across states. The SNAP benefit formula considers cash assistance, meaning that food assistance is more generous for those with less generous state cash programs. Consider a typical low-income single parent family in our study in 2009. In Vermont, they would be potentially eligible for $7,078 in cash and food assistance (including the EITC). Only 24 percent ($1,716) would come from food programs. If the same family lived in Kentucky, they would be eligible for $2,049 in food assistance, representing 42 percent of their $4,927 annual cash and food package. Cuts in SNAP funding would hurt the most for vulnerable residents of Southern states.
Almost $75 billion was spent on food assistance in 2014. But in comparison, Medicare spending was around $520 billion in that year. Even severe cuts to SNAP will not make a significant dent in the nation’s long run fiscal problems. While we try to solve these long run fiscal problems, we do not need to let struggling Americans go hungry. A robust SNAP program will provide a bare-bones safety net in the South and make a difference in the lives of low-income Americans across the country.
Lucie Schmidt, Lara Shore-Sheppard, and Tara Watson
The authors are professors of economics at Williams College.