In spite of the best efforts of many to get hunger on to the 2016 Presidential campaign agenda, there wasn’t much if any mention of the issue of people not being able to get enough to eat due to poverty. This is strange considering hunger is often a consequence of unemployment, and there is certainly a lot of senior hunger due to the inadequacy of Social Security and SSI benefits. Hunger certainly seems to be more of an issue than, for example, flag burning.
Coming into the new administration with a nominally Republican president of shifting ideological stances and a House Speaker who is rabid about de-funding and restructuring all of America’s poverty programs, it’s not immediate apparent what may happen to SNAP (Supplemental Food Assistance Program, or CalFresh here in our state, commonly known as Food Stamps still to many.)
Add to the mix the fact that there are multiple ways in which Congress can address the issue of SNAP. Changes to funding in the program can be included in the overall federal budget released each year. House Speaker Paul Ryan is ready to have a budget for the new President to sign almost immediately, possibly even after a Saturday session of Congress that may be called for January 21. His budget might have plenty to say about SNAP.
Ryan, like the “Contact on America” Republicans from the 1990s, wants to change SNAP from an “entitlement” program to a “block grant.” Currently as an “entitlement”, any time that someone qualifies for SNAP in the country, they must be approved and the federal government must pay for the assistance regardless of the total cost for that year. That means that in some years the SNAP program has provided $24 billion worth of assistance and in the worst years of the recession it’s provided as much as $75 billion (some estimates higher.)
Paul Ryan would like to change the program to a “block grant.” Under this scheme, each state would only get a limited amount of money each year for SNAP. Each state would get more flexibility to make its own rules for the program. And, states couldn’t get any more money than what they were allocated.
The results of a block grant would just about take away the whole point of having a SNAP program. As an entitlement, SNAP is flexible, and so during some hard years like 2007-2013 when more and more people lost their jobs, the number of Americans getting SNAP rose from 25 million in 2007 up to about 47 million in 2013, and they were able to get help without worrying about the SNAP program running out of money. Not only that, but when people spend SNAP benefits, it is a boost to the economy---every $5 spent on SNAP results in $9 circulating in the economy. SNAP makes up for the spending power people lose when they lose their jobs.
Then, as times get better, people do leave the SNAP program, and that’s relief to the federal budget as well as good news that people are working. SNAP caseloads are in fact declining now.
Under a block grant though, many people could be left without assistance. States may have to create waiting lists. Block granting did happen, by the way, to another program: that is the cash aid to families with children now called CalWORKs in California. Not only was the program block granted, but time limits and harsher work requirements were put in place. The result is that poverty and homelessness have risen among families, especially single women with children. (number of homeless families increased by 21 percent in Los Angeles between 2010 and 2013 Next City: Rise of Family Homelessness)
More analysis of this: What Would Happen If SNAP Was a Block Grant
Paul Ryan also wants to put stricter work requirements on SNAP, although the rules are already very strict due to the 1996 welfare law (a provision by John Kasich, now Governor of Ohio). This provides that adults without kids can only get 3 months of SNAP benefits in any 36 month period, unless you’re working 20 hours a week. There are waivers for this rule during times with high unemployment, but many states have let that waiver expire. There’s no proof that it’s any easier to get a 20-hour a week job than it is to get full time, when jobs are scarce.
But both the block granting and the work requirements have one real goal: to reduce the number of people getting benefits. That’s an easy goal to reach, compared to what should be the real goal of reducing the number of people in poverty.
However, the SNAP program is also part of our country’s Farm Bill which is debated every five years. The Farm Bill is an interesting example of a compromise that, while cynical to some, is proof that there are ways to get things done when each side depends on the other to some degree for what they want. “Horse trading” has been given a bad name, but in the Farm Bill it’s been a way that rural interests and urban interests have traded off and supported each other and provided some stability to the nutrition programs in the USA.
The Farm Bill addresses not only SNAP, but the rural ag subsidies (such as the big payments to farmers to grow corn, or soybeans, or various other crops). Typically the urban and Democratic members of the House Ag Committee speak up for SNAP, while the Republican (those from farm states) and rural members of the Committee speak up for the ag subsidies. They each agree to support each other’s priorities and present a bill that then gets passed, with stuff that each side likes (and that each side hates as well.)
There are a lot of Republicans as well as Democrats who realize that the SNAP program is a boon to the economy, and they do not want to see it block granted, they do not want to see harsher work requirements put in place, and they really really don’t want a fight about all this with farm subsidies at stake. And while some Republicans in recent years have tried to isolate the SNAP program and take it out of the Farm Bill to avoid having to reach these compromises, many want to maintain the Farm Bill as what it is---a system that keeps farmers in business and hungry people fed.
Take a look at this report “Past Present & Future of SNAP: Hearing Series Findings : 114th Congress” from Chairman K. Michael Conaway. He is Chairman of the House Ag Committee and Republican representative for Texas 11th Congressional District (way up in the panhandle by Amarillo, in a county with population 13,000). He states: “We can all agree that no one ought to go hungry in America, and SNAP is essential in protecting the most vulnerable citizens during tough times. For many it is a vital lifeline to keeping food on the table.”
Consulting sources also report:
“It would be unwise to split the farm bill (Ed: take SNAP out of the bill) because urban backing is needed for its passage.”1
Chuck Conner, President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives (NCFC), a Washington, D.C.-based trade association representing the interests of U.S. agricultural cooperatives agrees. During a forum on the upcoming 2018 Farm Bill sponsored by Farm Foundation Conner said, “Farm groups in Washington have already begun a lot of preparation for the next Farm Bill…and several common themes were heard in these types of informal discussions. It was very clear from these stakeholder discussions that the agriculture community as a whole has little interest in slogging through another Farm Bill debate without working closely with our colleagues in the nutrition community.”
We will have to see which view prevails.