(iStock photo)Friday marks the 40th anniversary of President Jimmy Carter’s signing of the Food Stamp Act. During the modern program’s 40-year history, the law has been strengthened on a bipartisan basis and is now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
Given all the chaos of the moment, you’d be forgiven for asking why we’d take time out to celebrate such an anniversary. Yet now is actually an excellent time to highlight the effectiveness of an anti-poverty program that quietly does its thing in the background. Amid all the noise, misinformation and some politicians’ and pundits’ general attempt to discredit everything the government does, SNAP continues to provide crucial support to 41 million people with limited incomes. No one should ever go hungry in a country as wealthy as ours, and nutrition assistance through SNAP reduces hunger and increases the frequency with which low-income households have access to nutritious food options.
What is it?
SNAP is a federal-state partnership; each state designs its own process, based on federal guidelines, for how low-income people can apply for benefits. Those who are eligible use an EBT (electronic benefit transfer) card, which is like a debit card, on which benefits are loaded once a month. The benefits are quite low — only about $1.40 per person per meal, on average — and can be used only on certain food items (it does not cover alcohol, hot foods or household supplies, for example).
The EBT-card structure is part of what makes SNAP highly efficient, as its benefits can get out to families in need easily and quickly. Germane to today, SNAP is also designed to respond quickly when natural disasters strike. Payment errors are rare, and fully 93 percent of federal SNAP spending goes directly to food purchases. Overhead of only seven percent in a large, private-sector program would be celebrated as an impressive achievement; Charity Watch, for instance, considers a charity to be highly efficient if its non-program spending is as high as 25 percent. The record for a public program like SNAP thus flies in the face of Republican claims about government waste.
Who does it help and how does it help them?
SNAP is a powerful anti-poverty tool for working people and those who can’t work. In 2014, the most recent year for which the most comprehensive data are available, the program lifted over eight million people, including four million children, above the poverty line.
That’s SNAP in the short run. As the graph below shows, SNAP also enhances long-term outcomes. When we compare the educational attainment and health status of adults who grew up in families receiving SNAP with the educational attainment and health status of similar adults who did not receive SNAP as children, the adults who received benefits as children were more likely to have completed high school and less likely to be obese.
Why might SNAP and — as a large and growing body of evidence shows — other programs that provide families with income support generate these long-term benefits? More research is needed on the mechanisms, but we do know that SNAP improves childhood access to nutrition, helping to prevent the early development of health problems. By bolstering family resources, it also helps to reduce the intense, chronic stress that low-income children often experience, helping them to focus on other tasks that will help them succeed, like school.
SNAP is responsive to need
Because of the program’s efficient distribution mechanism, as well as the fact that it goes to low-income families with immediate spending needs, SNAP boosts consumer demand and quickly injects money into the economy. Almost all (97 percent) of SNAP benefits are redeemed in the month after their receipt. This impact is particularly important during economic recessions, when economists estimate that SNAP has a higher bang for the buck than just about any other form of spending. Alan Blinder and Mark Zandi, for instance, believe that every $1 spent on SNAP during the first quarter of 2009 injected $1.74 into the economy.
In fact, the figure below displays SNAP’s potent, countercyclical prowess, meaning its ability to quickly ratchet up during a downturn and hold steady in a weak recovery. Conversely, as the slow expansion finally starts to reach lower-income people — poverty fell about two percentage points over the past two years — SNAP caseloads begin to diminish.
This feature of SNAP highlights one reason why the federal program must not be turned into a “block grant” (a fixed amount of funding sent to states to pay for the program). Block-granted programs, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, are not nearly as responsive to the state of the economy.
Forty years ago, policymakers worked together to address the real and persistent problem of hunger in America. Ever since, SNAP has been efficiently helping people meet their needs today and improve their futures tomorrow.
So, happy anniversary, SNAP. If we do our job to spread the facts about its quiet success while staving off the efforts of those who would deny that reality, it will have many more anniversaries to come.