May 5, 2018 Kim Krisberg 1Comment

A new federal farm bill would likely result in millions of Americans losing food assistance, with more than half of those losses among families with children. Many of the losses would be the result of new work requirements, despite growing evidence that such requirements do little to help people and families climb out of poverty.

The new estimate is from the U.S. Congressional Budget Office, which earlier this week released its analysis of the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018 (H.R. 2), the massive agricultural spending package commonly referred to as the farm bill and that funds the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the food stamp program. Introduced in April by U.S. Rep. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, the bill proposes new work requirements, new eligibility rules and new administrative challenges that would likely increase the costs to states.

Overall, CBO estimates that by 2028, the bill’s new work requirements would result in about 1.2 million adults losing SNAP benefits in an average month, when compared to current SNAP rules. About 11 percent of those 1.2 million would be childless adults ages 18 to 49, about 27 percent would be between ages 50 and 59, and 62 percent would be among households with children.

In particular, Conaway’s bill expands work requirements to adults ages 50 to 60 years old and adults with children older than 6 beginning in 2021, requiring both groups to prove on a monthly basis that they either worked or participated in a training program for 20 hours a week or risk losing food assistance. That requirement would increase to 25 hours each week in 2026. The bill also eliminates the current work requirement exemption for college students with school-age children who can’t find adequate childcare. (Keep in mind that SNAP already imposes work requirements and time limits on adults ages 18 to 49 who are not disabled and have no dependents. Sometimes such requirements are waived in response to economic crisis, such as during the Great Recession. In addition, most working-age SNAP beneficiaries already work.)

CBO estimates that the proposed work requirements would reduce spending on benefits by $9.2 billion between 2019-2028 as people lose eligibility, while administrative costs in support of the new work requirements would increase by $7.7 billion. Most of the new costs would be in the form of funds to help states create job training and educational programs. But CBO estimates that many of those programs won’t actually be up and running by the time the bill’s work requirements kick in. In particular, the agency found that “CBO expects that states would not be able to offer training to all eligible recipients when the (work) requirement takes effect in 2021, or even by the end of 2028.” According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities:

Beginning in 2021, an estimated 7 million people, including 1.5 million adults working more than half time, would have to prove every month that they met the requirement or were exempt.  States would have to build expensive systems to track each of these SNAP participants every month.  An estimated 3 million SNAP participants — including nearly 400,000 adults who are working but not enough to meet the 20 hour-a-week requirement — would need a job training or employment program to retain SNAP benefits. That number far exceeds current job training programs. The bill’s new funding for such programs is woefully inadequate, amounting to just $30 per month for each recipient who would need a work slot to retain benefits — well short of the cost for effective employment programs. States would find it impossible to provide high-quality job training for those that need it.”

Beyond new work requirements, Conaway’s farm bill would also eliminate a state SNAP option known as “broad-based categorical eligibility.” That option allows states to adjust SNAP criteria for families with incomes slightly above 130 percent of the poverty line, so that families don’t incur what’s known as the “cliff effect” and abruptly lose food assistance when they still need it. (Current federal SNAP rules require households be at or below 130 percent of poverty, or about $26,000 a year for a family of three, unless the household includes elderly or disabled members.)

According to the Food Research & Action Center, eliminating this state option would “particularly take SNAP away from low-income working people with children, exacerbate the ‘cliff effect’ when they improve their earnings, eliminate their children’s direct connection to free school meals, and significantly increase states’ administrative costs and burdens.”

Matt Knott, president of Feeding America, which represents a network of 200 food banks across the country, said of the new SNAP proposals: “This legislation’s SNAP provisions are held out as a means of helping unemployed individuals find jobs and obtain independence. Regrettably, making it harder for vulnerable members of our community to access food assistance does not set them on a path to self-sufficiency and success; rather it knocks them back down and makes it harder for them to work toward a better future.”

In a typical month in 2017, SNAP helped more than 40 million low-income Americans put food on the table, with the average SNAP recipient receiving about $126 a month, or about $1.40 per meal. Children, seniors and people living with disabilities make up the majority of Americans receiving help from SNAP. About one in eight people in the U.S. struggles with hunger. For more on H.R. 2 and what it could mean for Americans who need food assistance, click here, here or here.

One thought on “CBO: Republican farm bill would lead to millions losing SNAP benefits

  1. We live in an era where the pressure to mitigate health care costs is ever increasing. These concerns disproportionally affect socioeconomically disadvantaged Americans who consistently have the worst health and highest health care costs. Food insecurity is an important topic to consider as it has been known to reduce nutritional quality in the diet, create a trade-off between food and medical care, as well as escalate household stress. In order to combat this huge public health concern, the U.S. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) grants approximately $70 billion per year for-low income households to purchase foods, supporting about 1 in 7 Americans (1).
    In her article, “CBO: Republican farm bill would lead to millions losing SNAP benefits,” Kim Krisberg outlines the horrifying changes that may result in about 1.2 million adults being stripped of their SNAP benefits. The farm bill, which funds SNAP, is proposed to include aggressive work requirements that would likely prove unworkable and do more harm than good. In her report, she states that the U.S. Congressional Budget Office (CBO) “estimates that the proposed work requirements would reduce spending on benefits by $9.2 billion between 2019-2028 as people lose eligibility, while administrative costs in support of the new work requirements would increase by $7.7 billion” (2). From a mere dollar’s perspective, this would save a couple billion dollars, and increase overall workload spending by a much greater fraction. Across various study design types and analytic approaches, SNAP enrollment has consistently been associated with lower healthcare costs among low-income adults (3). As such, I would like to explore different food incentive and disincentive programs within SNAP that may potentially produce gains in health and healthcare savings.
    I believe much of what is wrong with the US healthcare system is because the financial incentives are not aligned with the goal of maximizing population health. In this sense, we need to adjust SNAP policy to incentivize quality health rather than quantity. While currently under controversy, a promising solution would be restricting SNAP participants from using their benefits to purchase sugar sweetened beverages (SSBs). The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released findings in 2016 that the second most purchased item with SNAP benefits are sweetened beverages (4). The USDA claims that this restriction would be unfair to SNAP beneficiaries as the average household buys the same amount of SSBs, regardless of income. Additionally, the beverage industry has spent millions opposing and lobbying against such measures. Put bluntly by Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at NYU: “In this sense, SNAP is a multibillion-dollar taxpayer subsidy of the soda industry (5).” While this may be seen as removing autonomy from several individuals to make choices, I believe it will restructure the food environment by giving grocery and convenience stores incentives to offer healthier options. This proposal would not suggest that low income individuals cannot spend their food dollars as they please. I simply believe we should not allow government benefits to be spent on sugary drinks that have been proven to undermine public health and potentially encourage poor dietary choices.
    A key challenge in improving nutrition for SNAP participants is associated with the high cost of healthy foods, particularly fresh fruits and vegetables (6). In this past month, as part of an assignment for my graduate-level course at the University of California, Berkeley, I completed the SNAP Challenge. This entailed spending $6.40 per day on food for an entire week. While there were many challenges associated with this limited budget, I can confirm the most cumbersome obstacle was fitting a variety of fruits and vegetables into my diet. While there may exist debate regarding motivating factors of low-income Americans, the food they are able to consume is directly related to the policies and forces that make unhealthy foods the least expensive per calorie. As such, I believe creating a 30% refund for fruits and vegetables should be included in SNAP policy. Currently, California holds the “Market Match” program which provides matching funds for SNAP beneficiaries to buy more fruits and vegetables. This program, however, only applies to purchases made at farmer’s markets. By expanding the refund program to grocery stores, we could improve the retail environment for SNAP participants, create more opportunities for making healthy choices, and ultimately decrease health costs over the lifespan of low-income Americans. A recent microsimulation study estimated that a fruit and vegetable incentive over five years would “prevent 38,782 cardiovascular disease events, gain 18,928 quality adjusted life years, and save $1.2 billion in healthcare costs” (7). Incentivizing the purchase of healthy foods among SNAP participants would not only encourage healthy eating behaviors on a microsystems level, but also reframe the food environment to benefit the nation’s most economically disadvantaged communities at the ecosystem level.
    Before having the conversation around the cost of healthy foods, we must consider knowledge and access. There is a lack of availability of healthy food options, disproportionally affecting low income communities. As such, policymakers need to consider a mandate towards retailers that includes a minimum stock of fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as making produce attractive and noticeable to beneficiaries in order to be certified SNAP retailers. There are several healthy retail activities that can be supported using SNAP-Ed funding. SNAP-Ed is an evidence-based program that teaches those who are using or eligible for SNAP about nutrition across the lifespan, eating healthy on a budget, and strategies to increase physical activity (8). SNAP-Ed providers can offer technical assistance to retailers on a variety of areas such as increasing point-of-purchase strategies by creating healthy check-out lanes or changing product placement. SNAP-Ed employees can also be required to research procurement systems that benefit and address the needs of store owners who are not meeting healthy food requirements. By concurrently enhancing nutrition education and the retail environment, policymakers can support the development of healthy habits, combat hunger, prevent chronic disease, and ultimately decrease healthcare spending.
    Historically, food insecurity has been centered upon the notion of inadequate quantity of food intake, resulting in being underweight. Today, however, the conversation must be shifted as food insecurity is increasingly related with obesity and inadequate diet quality to sustain optimal health. While the proposed farm bill work requirement may be seen as a strategy to save federal dollars and promote independence, policymakers need to understand how investing in SNAP has the potential to save more dollars in the long run. Using SNAP as a tool to leverage healthy eating would create healthy behaviors among low-income Americans and ultimately lead to enormous health care cost-savings.

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