July 28, 2011

Nutrition Programs: How Many Spending Cuts Can We Afford?

Marlena White

Marlena White

CLF Student Research Assistant

Center for a Livable Future

U.S. National Archives | 1941

In the midst of economic instability, it’s become clear that funding for major federal programs will be subject to cuts, and nutrition programs are no exception. Perhaps cuts are unavoidable, but it is essential that we examine their potential impact on public health.

According to a recent USDA Economic Research Service report, more than 50 million Americans, including 17 million children, were food insecure in 2009, meaning they were uncertain of having enough food or unable to acquire enough food for their household members. Food insecurity and hunger can have far-reaching consequences—numerous studies suggest that children in food-insecure households have higher risks of health and development problems than children in otherwise similar food-secure households. Any changes to these nutrition programs must not undermine the safety net they provide for millions of Americans.

Last Thursday, the House Subcommittee on Nutrition and Horticulture reviewed nutrition programs within Title IV of the Farm Bill, which is up for renewal in 2012. The hearing is part of a larger effort on behalf of the House Agriculture Committee to conduct audits on the major Farm Bill programs. (For more coverage on the hearing, click here.) Title IV programs include The Emergency Food Assistance Program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and altogether account for about 75 percent of Farm Bill spending. SNAP is the largest of these programs and a main focus of the hearings, currently serving over 40 million Americans every month—half of them children—with an annual budget of $69 billion. Currently, about 1 in 7 Americans receive SNAP benefits over the course of a year, a number that has grown substantially in recent years on account of high unemployment and continuing economic hardship.

The primary goal of Thursday’s hearing was to provide a picture of program spending and effectiveness, including how successfully they serve their stakeholders, possible areas of waste, and the impact of fraud and abuse. The hearing underscored that the main question now is not likely to be whether to cut program funding, but where exactly the cuts should be made and how large they should be. This sentiment was echoed in Chairman Jean Schmidt’s (R-OH) closing statement, in which she explained that the, “dramatic growth in SNAP participation and cost has strained our resources. Given our current budget situation, we have a responsibility to examine whether we can reduce the funding without compromising the integrity of the SNAP program.”

It remains to be seen how budget cuts will ultimately affect the Title IV nutrition programs, and the Farm Bill at large, but it is important for Congress to proceed with caution. With such high unemployment and slow financial recovery, the number of families in need of nutrition assistance will remain substantial.

In addition, nutrition programs are a stable source of revenue-generating economic activity, as the Secretary of the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services, Ms. Audrey Rowe, highlighted in her testimony during the hearing. As she explained to the committee, the USDA reports that every five dollars spent on SNAP benefits creates nine dollars of economic activity, thanks in part to the increased work and revenue for farmers, truck drivers, and other stakeholders. In addition, SNAP benefits move quickly into local economies that are often in dire need of increased revenue.

The social and economic safety net provided by the nutrition programs will remain critical to public health and the U.S. economy. While the goal of a balanced budget is an important one, we must be sure that the social and economic benefits of these programs will not be disrupted—we may not be able to afford it.

One Comment

  1. Christine Grillo

    Posted by Christine Grillo

    A very relevant article in the Economist this month. The author writes, “It is also hard to argue that food-stamp recipients are undeserving. About half of them are children, and another 8% are elderly. Only 14% of food-stamp households have incomes above the poverty line; 41% have incomes of half that level or less, and 18% have no income at all. The average participating family has only $101 in savings or valuables.”

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