The real benefits of SNAP

By Susan A. Schneider, Director of  LL.M. Program in Agricultural & Food Law at Arkansas School of law and contributor to the Agricultural Law blog.

As Congress debates the Farm Bill, some are targeting the food assistance programs.  I have been concerned that much of this discussion is misleading. Consider some of the following facts regarding Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), sometimes still referred to as the food stamp program.

“Food security” means “access at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members.” In the United States, almost 15% of Americans were food insecure at some time during the year, with “5.7 percent with very low food security—meaning that the food intake of one or more household members was reduced and their eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year because the household lacked money and other resources for food.”

In my home state of Arkansas the rate is even higher, with a food insecurity rate of 18.6%. Even more alarming, 28.6% of Arkansas children are food insecure.

In order to help address this problem, over 47 million Americans currently receive SNAP food assistance. This program is designed with national standards for eligibility to create a food safety net for low income individuals and families. Forty-seven percent of  SNAP beneficiaries are children. Households with children receive 71% of all SNAP benefits.

The SNAP program is designed to automatically expand when economic conditions decline, thus meeting the increased needs that are caused by problems in the economy, such as high unemployment.

The high number of Americans who receive SNAP benefits is not an indication of a problem with the program--the program is working as it was designed. It reflects an economy that is still struggling and continued problems with high unemployment and underemployment.

As explained in a recent U.S. News & World Report editorial, the Congressional Budget Office “projects that an improving economy will reduce the share of the population that participates in SNAP to its 2008 level in coming years; accordingly, costs will fall as a share of the economy. That's because most SNAP beneficiaries who can work want to and do work when jobs are available.”

As to allegations of fraud and waste, SNAP is actually one of the most efficient government programs, with rigorous quality control systems. Fraud in the SNAP program is among the very lowest of any program. The USDA has worked diligently to monitor the program, bringing SNAP benefit trafficking to its lowest level in history, about 1%.

If concern for food insecure Americans is not sufficient justification for strong support for federal food assistance, consider that SNAP is perhaps the most efficient and the least appreciated way to help local economies. SNAP benefits are directly transferred to local stores and farmers markets. They represent dollars spent in the local economy.

“An increase of $1 billion in SNAP expenditures is estimated to increase economic activity (GDP) by $1.79 billion. In other words, every $5 in new SNAP benefits generates as much as $9 of economic activity," says Kenneth Hanson in The Food Assistance National Input-Output Multiplier (FANIOM) Model and the Stimulus Effects of SNAP report.

Of all the government programs we could look to for cost savings, I find it both foolish and very sad, to have Congress considering significant cuts to SNAP benefits. These cuts threaten to hurt food insecure families and local economies.

Professor Susan A. Schneider teaches agricultural and food law courses at the University of Arkansas School of Law and serves as the Director of the unique advanced legal degree program, the LL.M. Program in Agricultural & Food Law. Schneider was raised on a family farm in Minnesota and has devoted her legal career to work in agricultural and food law. Her private practice experience includes agricultural law work with firms in Arkansas, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Washington, D.C. as well as service as a staff attorney at Farmer's Legal Action Group Inc. (FLAG). She now serves on the FLAG Board of Directors. She is a past president of the American Agricultural Law Association (AALA) and was the recipient of the 2011 AALA Distinguished Service award. She is a frequent speaker at agricultural and food law conferences. Professor Schneider is a significant contributor to the Agricultural Law blog. Her twitter account @aglawllm is followed by many interested in agricultural and food law issues.

Farmers' market and SNAP logo photos by USDAgov.

2 Responses to “The real benefits of SNAP”

  1. joe

    Professor Schneider –

    It seems hard to believe that we would ever want to INCREASE public assistance programs like SNAP, even if they were efficiently run. My hope would be that the goal would always be to eliminate the need for such programs because all of our citizens are self sufficient and leading healthy, interdependent lives within their respective communities.
    It seems very hard to believe that providing free food out to citizens can somehow result in a NET economic gain, but whatever argument is made to justify this claim, it leaves me wondering why we don’t just feed the entire nation for free. I understand that once individuals drop below a certain level of poverty, just keeping them from slipping lower and helping them meet basic needs will avoid other negative costs (crime, homelessness) and potentially keep them working and productive, but where is the line drawn? How do we as a collective determine when an individual should be responsible to meet their own most basic needs?
    Lastly, in the assessment of efficiency, do we measure quality and quantity of food nutritionally? Is there some metric that says we are spending X per Y number of calories, and the caloric standard per adult or child is Z, so we some kind of a sense that we are not contributing to obesity or measuring efficiency in ways that don’t necessarily get to the core issue?

    I look forward to your reply,


    Joe Goebel

  2. Fred Griffen

    As an organic farmer it is rare indeed that I have a bone to pick with the Rodale Institue. (I was among the inaugural subscribers to the old print version of “The New Farm.”) However, I cannot remain silent after reading “The real benefits of SNAP.” While I sincerely believe there are people in the United States who genuinely need the assistance provided through the various local, state and federal social welfare programs, I am equally sincere in my belief that the food stamp program, along with Medicaid and many others among these “assistance” programs, are subject to massive abuse by people simply “working the system.” (As long as soda pop, potato chips and other junk foods are purchasable with food stamps I cannot in good conscience refer to this program by its new politically correct misnomer “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.”) To accept the notion that 47 million people in the United States are “food insecure” and need food stamps is preposterous. I believe what the majority of that number need, along with the repeal of most of the so called “free trade” agreements which would bring jobs back to the USA, is enough self respect to motivate them to at the very least accept the menial type of work that, thankfully, many of our illegal immigrants are doing. These assistance programs are badly flawed and we’re now into at least the third generation of people who assume that living off these systems is “normal” if not indeed an inalienable right. Carried to its logical conclusion the FANIOM suggests that to save our economy we should ALL get on food stamps as soon as possible. Oops! The problem is there wouldn’t be enough people working and paying taxes to support this largesse. No, I submit it’s much healthier physically, mentally and spiritually for people to contribute to society and their local economies through honorable employment, personal accountability and volunteerism. Each of us, and that includes those we select to be our leaders, should encourage social structures that support those values, not the spirit numbing unsustainable culture of entitlements. Thank you.


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