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Little Becoming Less

By Carol Ward

States Enact Changes in Efforts to Curb SNAP Benefits

snap benefitsFamilies participate in a local festival that provides information and resources like fresh, free produce to help families put enough food on the table.

Mary, a 40-year-old mother of three, has fallen into poverty over the past two years. The San Diego resident was once middle-class, with a husband who had a secure job and a good income. But divorce, job loss, and other factors, including her ex-husband’s financial recklessness, have plunged Mary—who received food stamps briefly in the early 1990s—into a realm she never thought she would see again.

“I certainly didn’t expect all this to come crashing down,” says Mary, who recently completed her college degree in social work and is actively searching for a job related to her field. “But right now I have no income and no support.”

Mary turned again to food stamps, initially trying the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) call line, operated by San Diego County’s Health and Human Services Agency. But several efforts produced no results; her calls were disconnected or placed on hold “forever,” and she was never able to get help from anyone via telephone. Luckily, the computer-savvy Mary was able to apply online and began receiving her benefits within days.

Mary is one of the millions of people, largely victims of the Great Recession, who have joined the food-stamp rolls in the past few years. Enrollment in the program has risen to about 46 million, up by 20 million recipients from five years ago. Annual spending for SNAP is at nearly $80 billion.

As the need for food stamps has expanded, so have bureaucratic barriers to obtaining them—and so, too, have efforts at both the state and federal levels to curb SNAP benefit outlays. From a new assessment of assets for recipients in Pennsylvania, to a recalculation of benefits for some families in Kansas, to proposed drug testing of recipients in Florida and several other states, many legislators are intent on trimming costs and, in some cases, making sure recipients are truly “worthy” of the benefit.

An even bigger threat is developing at the federal level. In summer 2012, several legislators, led by representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, were calling for significant cuts to the program, citing the need to lower the federal deficit. At press time, the cuts were being debated in Congress.

A Program that Works...to an Extent

Against that backdrop, poverty continues to threaten the wellbeing of families, including an estimated 16.4 million children, across the country. The SNAP program is designed to provide a supplemental food source to those most in need; an April 2012 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that the program has a significant and positive effect on those struggling to put food on the table.

According to the report, Alleviating Poverty in the United States— The Critical Role of SNAP Benefits, SNAP has a stronger effect on the depth and severity of poverty than on its prevalence; that is, while SNAP has had limited success at reducing the number of poor people, it has been able to lower the level of those people’s poverty. The program is particularly effective, the report found, at minimizing poverty among children.

“When SNAP benefits are included in family income, the average annual decline from 2000 to 2009 in the depth [or average level] of child poverty was 15.5 percent and the average annual decline in the severity [or worst cases] of child poverty was 21.3 percent,” the study revealed.

Still, current benefits often fall short of what families need, many advocates say, especially when nutrition guidelines are taken into account. In fact, a 2011 report, The Real Cost of a Healthy Diet, prepared jointly by the Center for Hunger-Free Communities, Children’s HealthWatch, and Drexel University’s School of Public Health, examined whether a healthy diet could be maintained by low-income families in Philadelphia who received the maximum SNAP benefit and shopped at neighborhood food stores.

The USDA’s Thrifty Food Plan, the national standard for a “nutritious diet at a minimal cost,” was cited in the study—which found that the plan is unaffordable for SNAP beneficiaries.

“A family of four who receives the maximum SNAP benefit would need to spend an additional $2,352 per year on average  to purchase the Thrifty Food Plan market basket items,” the study concluded.

Limiting Access

An equally challenging aspect of the SNAP program is inaccessibility, whether because of tightened eligibility guidelines, overwhelmed staff, or a bewildering application process.

One of the biggest upheavals within the program at the state level is the reintroduction of asset testing in Pennsylvania.

The asset test, instituted on May 1 of this year, denies food stamps to anyone under the age of 60 with assets worth more than $5,500. The threshold climbs to $9,000 for households with members who are aged 60 and older or disabled. The rules pertain to cash, stocks, and bonds but exclude pension plans, retirement accounts, home values, or life insurance. The Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare (DPW) projects that the new rules will affect about 2 percent of the roughly 1.8 million people receiving food stamps in the state.

Service providers in Pennsylvania, though, predict that the consequences will likely be more dire than that.

Laura Tobin Goddard, executive director of the Pennsylvania Hunger Action Center, says the new rules will turn some eligible applicants away.

“Many people really don’t like to provide their banking information and may view it as an invasion of privacy,” Tobin Goddard says. “We feel it’s going to turn people away from the program and to food banks and food pantries more than ever, and food pantries are already at their limits.”

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