Few watching this spring’s face-off over the federal debt limit were surprised that House Republican hostage-takers fixated on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps. Members of the so-called Freedom Caucus were keen to slash SNAP eligibility and spending by expanding work requirements on able-bodied adults, lest the government continue letting the “undeserving” poor skirt by on the taxpayer’s dime. Liberals, arguing that such work requirements are ineffectual and only serve to take food from needy households, urged President Biden to resist. The outcome pleased few. Liberals were unhappy because President Biden gave in at all, and conservatives were unhappy because House Speaker Kevin McCarthy capitulated on exemptions for veterans and the homeless. But the fact that this skirmish, like many others in recent years, was over SNAP’s rules, not the program itself, speaks to its astounding political resilience.
SNAP is the nation’s largest food assistance program, more than double the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs combined. In budget terms, it is the second-largest antipoverty program for the nonelderly, after the Earned Income Tax Credit. Before Covid-19 hit in March 2020, SNAP spending hovered around $60 billion annually—or about how much the Pentagon spends in twenty-eight days—which supplemented the food-purchasing power of some forty million “food insecure” Americans. Unlike all other nutrition programs, SNAP is an entitlement, so if the number of people qualifying for benefits increases, so does program spending unless Congress caps its budget, which it has not done in decades. As unemployment and food insecurity rose precipitously at the start of the pandemic, the number of Americans enrolled in SNAP swelled, driving program spending to $119.5 billion in fiscal year 2022, in part due to “emergency” increases in maximum benefits levels for families with children. This money mattered: rates of food insecurity stayed stable throughout the acute phase of the pandemic, and even dropped by roughly 2 percent among families with children. Even so, under pressure from conservatives, Congress let the “emergency” increase expire this past February.
Prior to the pandemic, 81 percent of SNAP households were classified as living in poverty, which in 2020 meant an annual income below $26,200 for a household of four across all forty-eight contiguous states; the threshold jumped to $27,750 last year due to inflation. Around 28 percent of these households have earned income from wages. Another 56 percent rely on Social Security, retirement, or supplemental disability benefits, while 7 percent get some form of state or federal cash welfare, such as under the Transitional Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. Whatever form of income they receive, it is not enough to put food on the table for an entire month.
Most able-bodied adults eligible for benefits work, usually in low-wage jobs. Those who are unemployed are limited to three months of benefits over the course of thirty-six months unless they participate in state-approved job training or service programs. Over 80 percent of SNAP households include children, the elderly, or someone with a disability. SNAP use is not unheard of in low-paid active military households with children. While most immigrant adults who are not naturalized citizens are ineligible, their children born in the United States can obtain benefits for the household. Contrary to stereotypes of urban layabouts interminably on the dole, SNAP enrollees are as likely to live in rural areas, and two-thirds of SNAP households receive benefits for three years or fewer. The “typical” SNAP household, if one exists, is a working mother with children.
While the USDA, at the direction of Congress, puts some restrictions on SNAP use—no alcohol, no tobacco, no soap or paper goods, no hot prepared food or takeout except under special circumstances, such as the elderly who cannot cook—it otherwise gives enrollees freedom to buy whatever foods they wish at over two hundred fifty thousand participating retailers, from the local bodega to Walmart, the latter of which reportedly redeems nearly one-fifth of all SNAP dollars. Benefit levels are based on a “Thrifty Food Plan” that calibrates how much a household should spend on a basket of basic foods (such as eggs, cheese, and beans) and then adjusts for household income after deductions for basic living expenses and some assets, such as a car to get to work. In August 2021 the Biden administration made the first revision to the Thrifty Food Plan since 2006, raising average benefit levels to about $162 per person per month (or about $1.80 per meal), the first increase in the Plan’s base purchasing power beyond inflation since 1975.
SNAP was never meant to be a foundational food and income assistance program. In fact, its origins reside in a Great Depression-era initiative to aid farmers who were pushed to the brink of bankruptcy by crop surpluses and consequently deflated commodity prices. Destroying crops and animals to reduce surpluses even as the hungry queued in breadlines provoked public outrage, so the federal government began purchasing and distributing surplus commodities to the needy. But this system was criticized as inefficient, of limited nutritional value, demeaning to those who had to stand in line for charity, and unfair to retailers who lost business whenever free food was handed out. After trial and error, federal officials and retailers devised a plan to have eligible households purchase orange stamps, which could be redeemed for any food at any participating store. For each dollar of orange stamps purchased, participants would get a bonus of fifty cents in blue stamps, to be redeemed on foods declared in surplus by the secretary of agriculture. The first food stamp program was rolled out in Rochester, New York, in May 1939. The program proved effective and widely popular with enrollees and retailers alike, only to be terminated in 1943 as wartime demand dried up surpluses. But the idea of stamps was kept alive, and they were formally revived in 1961 when President John F. Kennedy, after witnessing hunger in West Virginia coal towns, initiated a food stamp program whose success led to the Food Stamp Act of 1964.
Nearly sixty years later, and despite numerous attempts to restrict the program, SNAP remains at the center of the nation’s fragmented social safety net. It wasn’t meant to be this way, and few on the left express fondness for this form of in-kind assistance. They should give more love to the program, however. SNAP is flawed, but it works.
Our Daily Bread
First, it’s about food. Starting with Ronald Reagan, every conservative effort to curb benefits and cut program spending was subsequently reversed after new surges in food insecurity, courtesy of the routine havoc wrought by market capitalism. Americans are disinclined to support “welfare” in the abstract, but they also don’t want to see people go hungry in a land where food is abundant and comparatively inexpensive. Two-thirds of respondents in a January 2023 YouGov poll expressed a favorable view of SNAP, and 40 percent thought the program deserved more funding. While support was highest among self-identified Democrats, two-thirds of Republicans surveyed also had favorable views, underscoring that SNAP is widely seen as the safety-net program of last resort. The SNAP work requirements favored by conservatives are not that effective, nor do they save money, and states often seek to waive them. But this is immaterial. Work requirements seal a deal with taxpayers that help is given to those who help themselves, if they are able.
Nutrition advocates and the like find themselves unlikely bedfellows with corporate America, granting SNAP the kind of political cover cash welfare never enjoyed.
Second, while the SNAP dollars loaded onto EBT debit cards are cash-like, they are not cash, a distinction that was grasped by those who first designed food stamps and has been reinforced by the near-total evisceration of federal cash assistance during the Gingrich/Clinton years. That difference is essential, even if the practical distinction is paper thin. Providing the poor with cash would, of course, be the simplest and most effective way to improve their lives. But this being America, cash is “welfare.” The Senate’s failure in 2021 to renew the pandemic child tax credit because some senators wanted benefits tied to work requirements (for parents, one presumes), or because they felt that the poor might not spend the money wisely, suggests that efforts to get more cash to the poor are doomed politically. While conservative critics are correct that SNAP frees up cash for other purposes—even supposedly frivolous ones like a day at the beach with the kids—its restrictions ensure that program funds are used for the intended purpose: food.
Most conservatives can live with such targeted relief, however begrudgingly, and focus on tightening program eligibility to those they deem the deserving poor. People on the left, recalling Clintonian welfare “reform,” may still prefer cash but will settle for making SNAP more generous and easier to access. That SNAP is not cash matters to its politics, just as it matters to other in-kind forms of support: the Earned Income Tax Credit, Section 8 housing vouchers, discounted public transit passes, heating subsidies, and Medicaid. While layering more rules on the program makes it harder for otherwise eligible households to access benefits, the opportunity to shape the rules makes it possible for critics to support the program at all. Save for the failed Gingrich-led attempt in 1995 to convert federal nutrition programs into a block grant to the states akin to what became of cash assistance under TANF, the main battles over SNAP have been about its rules rather than its existence.
Third, institutional factors bolster SNAP in ways that never aided cash welfare. The most important factor resides in Congress, where, even with the structural rural bias of the Senate, a shrinking number of farm-sector legislators rely on the support of their urban and suburban colleagues to maintain commodity supports for a tiny cohort of often well-off producers via the Farm Bill, which has shaped federal agricultural policy since the 1930s. Their solution has been to maintain the “farm programs + food programs” linkage in each Farm Bill reauthorization, which keeps SNAP under the jurisdiction of the House and Senate committees on agriculture. In fact, the Food Stamp Act of 1964 only passed after urban liberals overcame rural conservative opposition to a program aimed at the poor by threatening to kill cotton and wheat support programs which were critical to their producers, a straight quid pro quo. The message was clear: no commodity programs would get the support of urban legislators, especially Democrats, without rural support for nutrition programs. Farm-sector legislators folded the Food Stamp Act into the Farm Bill in 1973 to lock in the deal. If SNAP supporters once chafed at this arranged marriage, they now embrace it. Defenders of commodity and nutrition programs alike hold the Farm Bill card ever more tightly against their shared nemesis: the conservatives hellbent on cutting all forms of “discretionary” spending. The Farm Bill is up for renewal in 2023, and the tenacity of the “farm programs + food programs” coalition forces SNAP foes to seek other opportunities to get at the program, from holding it hostage during the debt limit impasse to trying to shape its rules via separate appropriations bills.
Beyond the beltway, SNAP boasts a diverse coalition of supporters: not just the “hunger lobby” of food banks, food-relief organizations, nutritionists, and antihunger advocacy groups but also conglomerates like Kraft and PepsiCo, retailers from Walmart to Dollar General, banks that process billions of dollars in EBT transactions, state governments that see SNAP dollars as “free” federal money, and for-profit and nonprofit providers of job training and placement services mandated by work requirements. All benefit from the program’s continued existence. For the food industry, billions of SNAP dollars bolster revenues in an often thin-margin business, and it is not about to let fiscal conservatives cut too deeply into its subsidy. Nutrition advocates and the like thus find themselves unlikely bedfellows with corporate America, granting SNAP the kind of political cover cash welfare never enjoyed. That SNAP benefits also subsidize the low-wage jobs endemic throughout the food system is rarely mentioned.
Most on the left would prefer cleaner, simpler approaches to fighting poverty, whether straight cash assistance or a higher federal minimum wage. Cash, as any economist can affirm, offers the greatest degree of personal autonomy and choice. (How many of us, on getting a gift card, haven’t wished for cash instead?) But Americans don’t trust the poor to make wise decisions, and the frequently ugly battle over cash welfare in the United States, one with more than its share of racist and sexist undertones, suggests that SNAP is the more politically feasible form of assistance. And feasibility is a virtue, particularly when it comes to feeding hungry people.
Barring a seismic reordering of our politics, SNAP will remain the status quo, and its nearly sixty years in existence—more, if you go back to its Depression-era roots—grants it a legitimacy that makes it easier to endlessly revise than to eliminate outright.
Of course, SNAP could be better. For starters, we often make accessing benefits a grueling, byzantine process. Some who are eligible do not enroll because of age and infirmity, language and immigration status, or shame about needing “charity,” but many are simply flummoxed by the program’s complexity. While the federal government funds all benefits, states pay half of the administrative costs, and in return get discretion in how they implement the program. Not surprisingly, states vary in how eligible households enroll and stay enrolled. Some require in-person interviews, others enable online applications; some require enrollees to renew every three months, others six; some offer job training, others just kick adults off the benefits if they haven’t found a job in three months; some require fingerprinting or drug tests. We should make it easier to apply for and retain benefits, and rules should be more consistent and equitable across states. Where you live should not determine your ability to obtain a decent diet.
Unlike TANF, annual spending on which has been frozen at $16.5 billion since its enactment in 1996, SNAP is adjusted regularly for inflation, and benefit levels track shifts in net household income. But the program’s antipoverty impacts would be improved if benefits better reflected variable costs of living. At present, the maximum benefit level is uniform across the continental United States, a good deal for residents of comparatively low-cost areas but harder on those in higher-cost locales. Benefit levels also do not account for pertinent household characteristics, such as the age of children; as a result, they underfund families with voracious teenagers compared to those with toddlers.
SNAP rules also could better reflect how Americans shop and eat. Regardless of income, most of us buy more prepared hot foods and spend less time preparing food at home. (Costco’s $4.99 rotisserie chicken is not a “luxury” food for budget and time-pressed families.) Yet SNAP’s rules still assume that Mom is in the kitchen, whipping up every meal from scratch, when it’s more likely that whoever prepares dinner just came from work and is cobbling together something on the fly. It is illogical to treat SNAP families as if they were not subject to the same time pressures besetting most U.S. households.
But, overall, SNAP works. It enables enrollees to buy food at their preferred retailer like any other consumer. Despite conservative media-fueled claims, the program is remarkably free of fraud, particularly since the universal introduction of the EBT debit card in 2002. How household benefits are allocated is immune to political manipulation. You qualify based on net household income, not because of who you are, who you know, or what you believe. No mandatory sermons await in checkout lanes. SNAP’s progressive benefits structure also makes it more responsive to swings in household income than other assistance programs, and it supplements income in ways that withstand the usual critiques about disincentivizing work.
Leveraging the private sector. Giving consumers some choice. What could be more American? Without SNAP, tens of millions of our fellow citizens would be far worse off. And if that sounds like faint praise, so be it. Short of a systemic solution to poverty—the root cause of food insecurity—and in a land of so much food, often bordering on the obscene, SNAP at least ensures that Americans get a better chance at a decent diet, a minimum element for a decent life, without sacrificing all personal autonomy and pride. Congress can debate SNAP’s rules. There is no debating the moral imperative for keeping what works.