The government spent less on food stamps as a percentage of GDP this year than it did in 2012, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) reported Wednesday. The new projections show that lawmakers who argue for reducing spending on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) can get their wish without imposing the multi-billion-dollar cuts to the program that they have demanded this year.
SNAP’s price to taxpayers rises and falls based on the overall performance of the economy. Fewer jobless people mean fewer poor people, which means lower SNAP enrollment and lower costs to the Treasury for a program that keeps millions of vulnerable Americans out of poverty each year. Enrollment in the program shot up thanks to the financial crisis and the Great Recession that followed, then leveled off as a slow but steady recovery took hold. Years of gradual progress in the fight against unemployment mean that the taxpayer tab for food stamps, measured in terms of the country’s total economic output, fell slightly in 2013.
CBPP projects the program’s costs will continue to fall without any cuts from Congress and that SNAP costs will be back down to their 1995 levels within six years if lawmakers simply leave the program alone. The program will shrink from over 0.5 percent of GDP at present to about half that in 2023:
The reason CBPP measures the program’s cost in relation to the whole economy, rather than focusing on the dollar cost of the program, is that it helps correct for population growth and inflation. The key question about any program is not whether it spent more money this year than last, but whether or not it is on a sustainable track relative to the overall picture of the country’s economic and fiscal health.
Yet opponents of the social safety net justify their proposed cuts to SNAP and other programs in part by arguing that the country cannot afford them and citing the rapid spike in the program’s costs. Republicans in the House want to cut the program by five percent, or $40 billion over the next decade, in a move that would boot millions of hungry people from SNAP next year alone. Democrats in the Senate have already approved a $4 billion cut to the program, and the two chambers are currently hammering out just how much to cut from the nation’s anti-hunger system. Those cuts will come on top of an automatic reduction that kicked in at the start of November, shrinking benefit amounts.
The updated cost projections for SNAP are just the latest evidence that such cuts are not just hard-hearted ,but unnecessary to achieve a reduction in food stamp spending. The new data also bolster those within the conservative movement who have started to criticize the GOP’s drive to slash spending on safety net programs such as SNAP.