Today, the Trump administration released a budget proposal for FY 2018 that would drastically reduce funding for SNAP—the largest nutrition assistance program in the federal safety net—by a full 28 percent over the course of the next ten years. This amounts to a $193 billion dollar cut from a program with a yearly budget of less than $75 billion.
Despite statements just last week from Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, who claimed no knowledge of proposed changes to SNAP, the budget proposal states that the drastic reductions in SNAP funding will be achieved through measures that expand work requirements, narrow eligibility, and establish a matching component for states to cover a portion of benefits—a potential first step toward block granting the program.
The preliminary “skinny budget” released by the administration in March, which called for a 21 percent reduction in USDA funding for discretionary programs, hinted at the direction, but not the magnitude of cuts to come for means-tested programs like SNAP. Now, with dollar signs and decimal points to demarcate the damage, the final budget proposal confirms a caustic indifference to the needs of millions of rural and urban families served by the agency’s cornerstone programs—and with it, a callous betrayal of a key segment of President Trump’s own voter base. The consequences of slashing funding for SNAP, compounded by equally significant cuts for programs like Medicaid to the tune of over $800 billion over 10 years, pose a very real and significant threat not only to the core function of our federal safety net, but to the backbone of our nation itself.
We can’t afford cuts to SNAP funding
SNAP provides support to 21 million American households in both urban and rural areas, lifting families out of poverty, reducing food insecurity, and improving long-term health outcomes. Put simply, SNAP works. It is one of the most effective federal assistance programs we have, and it operates with one of the lowest fraud rates. In 2014, the benefits provided by SNAP lifted an estimated 4.7 million people out of poverty—including 2.1 million children. In fact, nearly half of all SNAP recipients (about four in ten) are children.
Research is clear about the devastating consequences facing kids who don’t get enough to eat: they experience poorer health, incur higher medical expenses, and achieve less in the classroom and beyond. Reducing the amount of funding available to SNAP recipients by 25 percent is equivalent to removing a critical source of support for the growth and development of over half a million kids. How does the master plan to make America great (there is one… right?) compensate for the lost potential of a half million of its youth?
And kids aren’t the only ones who benefit from SNAP. Data shows that the program reduces food insecurity rates by 30 percent among participating households, which means fewer serious health complications and hospitalizations for adults living with diabetes. SNAP-Ed also plays an important role in promoting health and helping low-income families achieve healthy diets: evidence-based nutrition education programs funded through SNAP have yielded increases in fruit and vegetable consumption and greater physical activity levels among adults, with estimates of $10 saved in overall long-term health care costs for every dollar invested.
Research also suggests that SNAP expenditures act as economic stimuli, with every five dollars in new benefits generating as much as nine dollars in economic activity. This function is particularly important during times of economic downturn, as benefits redeemed contribute to both the economic stability of participating households and their broader communities.
Cultural elitism, institutional racism, and a dash of alternative facts
If you remember only two things from this post, let it be these brief and breathtakingly true facts: SNAP already has work requirements in place. And most SNAP participants who can work, do work. To be eligible for SNAP benefits, program regulations require that able-bodied adults without dependents must either work or participate in a work program for at least twenty hours per week. SNAP users may also be required to attend state-assigned employment and training programs. If they don’t meet work requirements within three months of enrolling, benefits are terminated and can’t be reinstated for a 36-month period.
Which brings us back to extraordinarily accurate fact number two: Most SNAP participants who can work, do work. USDA data shows that approximately 64 percent of SNAP participants are children, elderly, or disabled; 22 percent work full time, are caretakers, or participate in a training program; and only 14 percent are working less than 30 hours per week, are unemployed, or are registered for work. Moreover, among households with adults who are able to work, over three quarters of adults held a job in the year before or after receiving SNAP—meaning the program is effectively helping families fill temporary gaps in employment.
So if work requirements already exist, and most able-bodied adults are working…why are we still talking about stronger work requirements? We can attribute this in part to a dangerous and deeply rooted political narrative that has for decades cast a light of suspicion and mistrust on welfare recipients—particularly those of color—by painting them as lazy and deceitful in the public eye. And if you believe that we no longer suffer the aftershocks of the mythical Reagan-era welfare queens, recall that just three short years ago, current House Speaker Paul Ryan delivered a radio interview in which he raised concerns about a perceived “tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.” Ryan’s own constituents were quick to point out that his comments amounted to thinly veiled code language for “black men.”
Is there good news? Tell me there’s good news
There’s good news. Here it is: Trump doesn’t have the final say on the budget. Congress does, and there are strong indications that bipartisan opposition to proposed agency and program funding cuts has only gained momentum since the release of the preliminary budget. House Agriculture committee chair Mike Conaway has called the proposed budget wrongheaded, while ranking member Collin Peterson confidently stated that the preliminary budget would be ignored, “as it should be.”
But it is critical not to mistake broad dissatisfaction with the president’s budget priorities for a commitment to protecting public assistance programs—particularly SNAP. As the farm bill program with the largest price tag, SNAP is, and will remain, a glaring target for those seeking areas to cut federal spending. At UCS, we will continue our work to provide sound scientific evidence demonstrating the long-term health impacts and cost savings generated by investments in SNAP, while countering political narratives that propagate harmful stereotypes about program participants and diminish public support for critical federal assistance programs. We can’t let allow politics and ideology to seal the fate of the federal safety net—the stakes are simply too high.