Such cuts would amount to about 15 percent of the program’s projected spending over those years. The cost of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is already declining naturally as the economy recovers and fewer families need the safety net, and Congress has already cut billions of dollars from the program in recent years. But whereas those previous, smaller cuts came from highly technical tweaks to program rules — and were therefore subject to a sort of informal veto by governors in several states — the new GOP budget documents coming from both sides of Capitol Hill this week seek a sweeping overhaul of the program.
For ground-level hunger activists like New York City Coalition Against Hunger executive director Joel Berg, the attacks on food spending are baffling. “They should be loving SNAP,” said Berg, who is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. “It’s a voucher program that’s not spent in other government entities and not even spent in non-profits. It’s spent in private enterprises, private stores. It helps keep families at work and it helps keep families together.”
The kinds of charitable organizations Berg represents are already under serious duress. New York City’s food banks started running out of food and turning away needy people last winter after a far smaller cut than the one being proposed this year. One in six food banks and food kitchens nationwide is worried about running out of resources and having to close the doors, according to a survey last summer by the national food charity network Feeding America.
Such charitable groups have already been outspoken in opposing Republican food stamp cuts dating back to the 2013 fight over cuts in the farm bill. Back when Democrats still held the Senate, the GOP campaign to cut about $40 billion from SNAP went badly awry. Ultimately, the GOP settled for a roughly $8 billion cut that both the Obama White House and Democratic congressional leaders signed off on reluctantly. That cut compounded the effects of separate, automatic benefits cuts that came into effect during the political fracas, and charitable groups had protested each round of trimming. It’s hard to believe their message will penetrate in 2015 with people who have ignored it since 2013.
The last time the GOP proposed food stamps cuts in a budget rather than pursuing them through the farm bill, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) proposed cutting about $125 billion from the program over 10 years by converting it to block grants. Both Rep. Tom Price (R-GA) and Sen. Mike Enzi (R-IN) are reportedly modeling their SNAP proposals on that idea rather than the narrower changes resulting from the farm bill.
Such a large cut would inevitably take hundreds or even thousands of dollars away from food stamps families each year. “There’s no way to achieve that level of savings without cutting benefits to currently eligible people or restricting who is eligible,” said Stacy Dean of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, because fraud and administrative overhead are already so low for food stamps that targeting them “cannot generate significant savings.”
Turning the program over to the states would also raise a variety of headaches for benefits administrators who would suddenly have to spend time crafting their own rules instead of focusing their energy on abiding by the ones Washington sets. These staffs would suddenly have to find time and craft rules to do things like inspect and authorize retail stores to participate in SNAP, establish a system for electronic financial transactions between the companies that furnish benefits cards and the accounts that hold actual food stamps money. “Those would all now become state responsibilities, as well as setting the benefit levels and eligibility rules,” Dean told ThinkProgress, meaning that similar families with similar nutritional needs in New York and Mississippi might face radically different systems. “Block granting is not generally viewed as a good idea, and we don’t see states asking for it,” she said. “No one is spending time thinking through how to do it.”
Despite the intentional vagueness of the block granting approach, Dean’s analysis is bolstered by a new Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analysis that attempts to make the idea concrete. Congress can’t cut SNAP costs this much without either booting a fifth of all food stamps families out of the safety net or stripping several hundred dollars per year out of the food budgets of the poorest Americans.
The CBO’s estimates were based on three different methods of achieving the approximate level of cuts that previous Republican budgets have promised from SNAP. Because many households that are eligible for SNAP do not actually receive the benefits, the report calculated both the average household budget impact for all families that are SNAP-eligible, and the much larger impact on just those eligible families that actually receive the benefits.
First, the report models the impact of an across-the-board cut of 13 percent to the maximum food stamps benefit level, which would bring cascading cuts to all beneficiaries. This approach would keep 99 percent of current beneficiaries enrolled but erase $600 from the income of the poorest SNAP families and $700 from participating families with higher earnings.
Second, the group calculated what would happen if the benefit cap remained steady but lawmakers altered the formula that determines benefit levels based on family earnings. This approach would effect take a far smaller bite out of the very poorest set of households while knocking $900 to $1,200 out of the budgets of SNAP-eligible households with after-tax incomes above $15,000. One in 20 current recipients would get dropped from SNAP.
The third estimate is based on a dramatic reduction in the income level that makes a person eligible for SNAP, from 130 percent of the federal poverty line to just 67 percent of it, with no change to benefit amounts for those who would still be eligible at that far lower cap. Such a radical redefinition of how poor a person has to be to get help buying food would have the starkest overall impact on how America defines its responsibility to the hungry, but take the smallest dollar amount from the budgets of beneficiary households earning less than $15,000. It would still take $150 a year from those families, while potentially depressing take-home income by $1,000 a year for SNAP-participant families earning over $15,000 annually. Nearly one in 5 current SNAP beneficiaries would get booted from the program entirely.
This is far more detail than will be on display in the actual budgets released this week, if reports that Republican cuts to food stamps will come in the form of block grants prove true. The official bean counters didn’t attempt to model that approach, because it is by definition impossible to model. As a policy approach, block granting intentionally side-steps the intricacies of how individual states and bureaucrats would go about retailoring the program to hit their new, lowered total spending allotments for SNAP.
That baked-in vagueness looks rotten to NYCCAH’s Berg. “It’s not a sincere attempt to give power to the states. It’s a smokescreen to find yet another way to protect tax breaks for the rich,” he said, pointing out that the mechanism GOP lawmakers used to effect significant SNAP cuts in early 2014 relied on taking program control away from state officials.
“They’re for more Washington control when it takes money away from poor people, and they’re for more state control when it takes money away from poor people,” Berg said. “That’s the only form of ideological consistency here.”