Oh SNAP! The food stamp president’s badge of honor
“Whoever gives to the poor will not want, but he who hides his eyes will get many a curse.”
– Proverbs 28:27
Of all the insults that the Right likes to throw at Obama, it seems as though their favorite is calling him “The Food Stamp President.” They don’t really go for “The Unemployment President.” And you don’t hear “The Welfare President.” No, I believe it started with Newt Gingrich and has been repeated by them all, but “The Food Stamp President” represents about the worst slur they can muster, other than the incredibly racist ones.
And indeed, the number of Americans on food stamps has sharply risen during Obama’s watch. It would really be a stretch, however, for anyone to point to a particular policy that made it so. Most level-headed folks would realize that the country was hemorrhaging 700,000 jobs per month when Obama was inaugurated. The dramatic increase in SNAP participation and costs is a result of the recession, not categorical eligibility. Our nation has seen the highest unemployment rates in nearly 30 years. As the number of unemployed people increased by 94% from 2007 to 2011, SNAP mirrored that growth with a 70% increase in participation over the same period, responding quickly and effectively to growing need in the recession.
Foreclosures due to the housing crisis were kicking people out of their homes (and their kitchens) at a record pace. And then of course, there was the video I posted last week on the rise in income inequality in this country. (Did you do your homework and watch it? If not, go here.) It showed how more and more income is being gobbled up by the richest 1 percent of this nation, leaving the lower 60 percent getting poorer and poorer. That’s less and less money each month for rent, medicine, and food. Thus, more people on food stamps.
But I’m not here to quibble about why folks need assistance. I’m here to shine a light of truth onto the SNAP (food stamp) program, which not only feeds the neediest among us, but does so with an incredible amount of efficiency for a government program, and without hardly any graft or corruption.
The Least of These
“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” –Matthew 25:40
15 percent of the U.S. population is on food stamps. Not 47 percent; 15 percent. The 15 percent poorest Americans. 47 million of them.
Half the recipients are children.
76 percent of food stamp households have a child, a disabled person, or the elderly.
83 percent of SNAP households are below the poverty line of $19,000 per year for a household of three. 61 percent of SNAP households make less than $14,000 per year.
46% of client households served reported having to choose between paying for utilities or heating fuel and food.
The average SNAP household has a gross monthly income of $744, and a net monthly income of $338.
A hand up, not a hand out
The average length of time a new participant stays on the program is 8 to 10 months. This is not a lifetime of entitlement.
Integrity and efficiency
SNAP error rates declined by 61 percent from 1999 to 2010, from 9.86 percent to a record low of 3.81 percent.
Federal administrative expenditures for SNAP equal less than 4.5% of overall federal SNAP costs. About 94% of that is the federal share of state administrative costs for operating the program. SNAP caseloads have risen by more than 75% since FY2007 due to historic unemployment, but federal spending on state administrative costs has only risen by 17% over the same period. I’d like to see the private sector achieve that level of efficiency.
The modest $48 million annual investment in SNAP performance bonuses has helped improve states’ performance, maximizing the federal investment in SNAP and ensuring that benefits are distributed in the correct amount and reach those who need them. The bonuses have incentivized states to improve performance, share best practices, and work to improve SNAP in way that was rare prior to 2002.
Nobody wants to stay on SNAP
SNAP benefits don’t last most participants the whole month. 90% of SNAP benefits are redeemed by the third week of the month, and 58% of food bank clients currently receiving SNAP benefits turn to food banks for assistance at least 6 months out of the year. The last week of the month is always the busiest at food banks.
The average monthly SNAP benefit per person is $133.85, or less than $1.50 per person, per meal. Living like kings, aren’t we?
One in seven American households struggles to put enough food on the table. Unemployment is stuck above 9 percent nationally, and the need for food assistance will remain high for some time. In the meantime, families are being hit with soaring food inflation. Grocery prices increased 6 percent in the last 12 months, more than twice the average annual rate.
Food stamps don’t go to illegal immigrants
Undocumented immigrants are ineligible for SNAP. Additionally, there is already a strict waiting period for documented immigrants. Documented adult immigrants (those with a greencard) are subject to a five-year waiting period before they are eligible for SNAP.
Noncitizens make up a very small portion of SNAP participants – only 4% of participants are noncitizens (documented immigrants or refugees).
SNAP already has strict time-limits for unemployed workers. Able bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) may only receive 3 months of SNAP benefits during any 3 year period, unless they are working in a qualifying job training program.
The SNAP benefit formula is structured to provide a strong work incentive – for every additional dollar a SNAP participant earns, their benefits decline by only about 24 to 36 cents, not a full dollar, so participants have a strong incentive to find work, work longer hours, or seek better-paying employment.
But what about that woman my cousin saw?
And then there is always the story about the woman who used food stamps to buy Twinkies and Snicker bars. Lots of people claim to have a “friend” who saw this woman. Are there some who try to game the system? Sure. Just as there are millionaires trying to game the system. But I find it strange that we are angry about a woman buying a Twinkie with food stamps while turning a blind eye to Exxon’s $2.4 billion in tax subsidies. Hey, what are you gonna do?
Get government out of it
It is abundantly clear that the food stamp program is not only efficient, effective, and free of corruption, but that it also meets that basic faith requirement, be you Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or Christian… that we will take care of the least of those amongst us. Some will say that government should stay out of it and leave it to the institutions of faith. Okay, every house of faith would need to raise $150,000 dollars every year to pay for the food stamp program. I figure that means less for the smaller churches and more for the larger ones. The average church in the U.S. has 90 people, so you do the math. And that’s just for food stamps. That doesn’t cover welfare, unemployment benefits, child and disabled adult care, or health care. For that, houses of faith will have to dig deeper. Yeah, or they can expand their parking lots.
To call Barack Obama the Food Stamp President is actually quite a compliment. It is a badge of honor he should wear proudly. It’s saying that he feeds the poorest of his constituents with a program that is effective, efficient, and moral. Yes, the government built that.