January 10, 2018

Proposed Reforms to SNAP May Threaten Food System Equity and Access

Sameer Siddiqi

Sameer Siddiqi

CLF-Lerner Fellow

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

A political clash over millions of Americans’ access to food may be in store for this year. Recent executive and legislative developments suggest important changes are likely for the 42 million Americans that rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Administrative Changes on a State-by-State Basis

In November, 2017, the administrator of the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service, which oversees SNAP, invited states to share strategies to promote “greater state flexibility,” by suggesting reforms related to SNAP beneficiary self-sufficiency, program integrity, and customer service. Two weeks later, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue reiterated the USDA’s desire to give states greater flexibility with the broader goal of helping beneficiaries “transition from government programs, back to work, and into lives of independence.”

These comments are noteworthy because they come in the aftermath of a meeting between the Food and Nutrition Service and the Secretaries’ Innovation Group, a coalition of social service secretaries representing Republican state governments. Earlier this year, the coalition delivered a memo to the USDA and Republican Congressional leaders outlining over a dozen proposed changes to SNAP.

Their primary recommendation, which is similar to proposals from other conservative organizations, calls for universal enforcement of the rule that no more than three months of benefits during a 36-month period be given to unemployed able-bodied adults without dependents.

Other public health-related proposals in the memo include restrictions on purchases of soda and candy and reallocating SNAP-ED funds away from nutrition education and toward employment and training. Many of the proposals can be approved by the USDA through administrative waivers to program rules on a state-by-state basis, without the need for Congressional action.

Many are concerned that the USDA’s recent statements on state flexibility will translate into state changes and waivers. As an example, the USDA recently issued guidelines allowing states to more freely use private contractors for SNAP casework.

But Secretary Perdue’s stance on some of these issues is unclear. In December, he expressed skepticism at attempts to limit purchases of certain foods: “Where do you draw the line of the different states? For instance, if one state says that you shouldn’t have meat?”

Legislative Changes via Welfare Reform and the 2018 Farm Bill

State waivers aside, statements from the White House and Republican Congressional leaders suggest that broad, “all-encompassing” welfare reform, possibly including SNAP, may also be in store for 2018.

The scope of these with regard to SNAP is unclear. In May, 2017, the White House proposed $190 billion in cuts to SNAP over the next decade through changes to program eligibility, state cost-sharing, and work requirements. Congressional reforms targeting SNAP may resemble provisions included in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Reform Act of 2017 and Welfare Reform and Upward Mobility Act of 2017, both of which call for the elimination of work requirement waivers. There’s no evidence yet, however, that broader changes like block-granting SNAP are being considered.

Despite the potential threat of welfare reform, changes to SNAP are most likely to be accomplished through the 2018 Farm Bill. In December 2017, Secretary Perdue downplayed the likelihood that SNAP would be taken out of the Farm Bill. Congress is expected to take up the next Farm Bill in the coming months. The House Agriculture Committee Chairman recently shared that a draft of the bill had already been sent to the Congressional Budget Office and that mark-up of the bill may begin in first quarter of 2018.

Assessing the Emphasis on Work Requirements and Fraud

Many anti-hunger advocates are criticizing the proposed changes. In a recent interview, Stacey Dean of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities noted the potential harm of current proposals: “The whole idea is to layer on stigmatizing complexities that make it more difficult to apply for the program and to use benefits.” Conversely, organizations like the Heartland Institute, a conservative think-tank, welcome stronger work requirements, citing cost savings and incentives for stable employment.

But the empirical rationale for these proposals is unclear. Critiques suggest employment gains from such policies may be overstated. Withdrawing benefits on the basis of employment may disproportionately limit access to food for adults with a variety of challenges, like low education, language or transportation barriers, physical or mental health limitations, or those in economically distressed areas.

These developments are confusing for other significant reasons. First, research suggests that SNAP helps the working poor, specifically adults in low-wage jobs or those between jobs. Second, there’s limited evidence of widespread SNAP fraud, a claim made routinely by Congressional Republicans; in fact, overpayments and SNAP benefits illegally sold for cash are at historic lows.

Although reforms pertaining to program eligibility and integrity are typically beyond the scope of public health researchers and advocates, they have important implications for the millions of Americans, adults and children, who rely on SNAP for access to healthy food. Proponents of equitable food systems should closely monitor these issues over the next year at both the federal and state-level.

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