Creating a National Conversation About Surviving on Food Stamps

This post was originally featured on the blog of the Asset Building Program at the New America Foundation, a D.C.-based think tank.

Yesterday, Newark Mayor Cory Booker finished his widely publicized “SNAP Challenge,” during which he subsisted solely on meals he could prepare on an average week’s worth of SNAP (formerly food stamps) benefits – which works out to about $1.40 a meal. While certainly difficult, the SNAP Challenge cannot mimic the actual experience of receiving and surviving on SNAP benefits; as others have pointed out, the exercise cannot simulate the “psychic costs” or cumulative effects of living in poverty: hunger, insecure housing, and inadequate healthcare. Moreover, participants in the challenge are neither subject to the often taxing application and recertification processes nor the burden of actually using an EBT card. Ensuring that a given store accepts SNAP; separating eligible food items from ineligible purchases; and enduring the perceived stigma of using an EBT card in the checkout line are all aspects of participating in the program that the SNAP Challenge cannot encapsulate.

Nevertheless, the challenge can play an important role in bringing attention to SNAP’s low benefit levels, as recently documented in a new report by the Food Research and Action Center. Furthermore, efforts like Booker’s can stimulate national conversation about the experience of using SNAP, with the voices of families that have participated in the program often the strongest in revealing both its crucial importance and its structural shortcomings.

The average SNAP benefit per person is $133.42 a month. Benefits are calculated based on the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP), which originated in the 1930s and is the lowest of four estimates devised by the USDA for a family’s average monthly food costs. As of October 2012, the TFP estimates that an average family of four needs $627 a month to maintain a nutritionally adequate diet. This number, which is used to determine the maximum SNAP benefit, is calculated by reference to the cost of a “market basket” of groceries from a range of food groups; the items included in the TFP market basket are limited in variety compared to the other three food plans.

A new report from FRAC points to an array of weaknesses of the TFP, and calls instead for the institution of the slightly higher “Low-Cost Food Plan” as the basis for SNAP benefit allotments. Among TFP’s shortcomings are its underestimation of food costs and unrealistic expectations for food availability, reliable transportation and time for meal preparation among SNAP participants. Indeed, FRAC describes the TFP as “an artificially constructed model that obscures the reality of the impossible struggles of low-income people” – which in some ways parallels criticism of the SNAP Challenge itself. While the challenge disaggregates food expenditures from all other aspects of surviving on a low income, the TFP sets a budget for food based on ideal conditions and access to resources. Neither reflects or anticipates the complex reality of living in poverty – the difference is, the TFP’s incomplete picture has extensive practical consequences for how much food families are able to put on the table.

Thus, some of the difficulties that Mayor Booker encountered affording adequate food during the SNAP Challenge—and that actual SNAP participants struggle with every day—are largely attributable to an outdated policy choice. Booker’s experience also brought renewed attention to other opportunities for policy reform—including my favorite topic, the asset test. In response to Booker’s challenge, the Huffington Post solicited stories from current and former SNAP participants. One of the letters it published was from Margo, a woman in Kentucky whose family turned to benefits for the first time as they struggled to find employment in wake of the Recession. Kentucky is one of fifteen states that still maintain an asset limit for all SNAP participants. Furthermore, while some states that have retained limits have raised them to $5000 or more, Kentucky has kept the low federal limit of $2000. As Margo recounted:

“We needed to provide information about all our assets, including everything we had in the bank… By trying to establish a small emergency fund from our tax refund and putting some of our baby gifts into a bank account for our son, simply having a month’s worth of rent in the checking account was enough to put us over the limit. We could’ve spent down, of course, ensured we had no assets, but we made the choice to try and build some savings and simply tighten our belts even further.”

Congress is poised to make some key decisions about SNAP funding as part of ongoing Farm Bill and fiscal cliff negotiations—with a new five-year bill possible within the next month. The House version of the bill would cut SNAP by over $16 billion dollars, resulting in the loss of benefits to two to three million families. One of the bill’s chief provisions is the elimination of broad-based categorical eligibility, which would require all states to reinstate their $2000 asset limits. Should this happen, families like Margo’s, along with millions of other households that turned to public benefits for the first time to cope with Recession layoffs, will be compelled to face a true challenge: choosing between maintaining their hard-earned savings or continuing to receive assistance to put food on the table until they get back on their feet.

To read more about how asset limits burden both families’ resiliency and states’ administrative efficiency, check out our recent policy paper.

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