Panel Paper: Recommended Changes to the US Department of Agriculture SNAP Program

Saturday, March 30, 2019
Mary Graydon Center - Room 245 (American University)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Catherine I West, Columbia University

Research shows that SNAP’s basic benefit formula is out of date and not sufficient to ensure low-income households with enough funds for a healthy diet. Updating the benefit structure to increase SNAP benefits, and including geographic variations in food costs would increase recipients’ spending on food, and would improve the quality of their health and diet. SNAP funding has already shown to be effective at addressing hunger in the poorest families, and generally reducing extreme poverty. Increasing the maximum benefit allowed would help the lowest income families eat more nutritious diets, spend more money on other necessities, and work toward economic stability. According to the Food Research Action Center, in 2017 40 million people lived in food insecure households in the U.S. Though SNAP has been incredibly effective at addressing hunger in the poorest families, by USDA estimate it still only reaches 80 percent of eligible households. With 30 percent of the U.S. population still living under 200% of the federal poverty level, and SNAP benefits of a maximum per person per meal $1.90 (the average benefit $1.40), there is still much need for food allowance not being met. The current Thrifty Food Plan (TFP), the basis for calculating benefits, assumes households have much more time to prepare meals than they actually do, and assumes households consume a diet far different than what is typically consumed in an average diet. Households often run out of food by the end of the month, and are forced to buy items that don’t make sense for their diets and lifestyles. Research has shown that most families do not get through the month with even a minimally adequate diet on SNAP and the benefit does not cover the cost of a low-income meal in 99 percent of U.S. continental counties and the District of Columbia. Given the costs of implementing nation-wide food banks, as well as the lack of flexibility for recipients, the shortage of monthly funds would not be addressed adequately by a system similar to those of Ireland, Italy, or the Netherlands. Rather, changing the formula of the TFP to increase SNAP benefits, and accounting for geographic variations in food prices would go a long way to assist recipients in covering their food expenses for a full month, as well as improving the nutrition of their diets. Revising the calculation used to determine the minimal cost of a nutritionally adequate food plan by updating USDA market baskets by region would increase the upfront cost to the government, but would ultimately come back into the economy through spending at grocery stores and farmers markets. One study found that a $30-per-person increase in monthly SNAP benefits would raise recipient households’ grocery spending by about $19 a month per person. Increasing benefits across the board, and with regional variation, would also directly affect participant health. With more nutritious diets, and without a decrease in food at the end of the month, studies have shown declines in inpatient Medicaid costs, inpatient hospitalizations, and emergency room visits.