It’s Time to Bust Myths About SNAP
Alex Morris, from Bend, OR, depends on SNAP, WIC, and other programs to care for André, who suffers from a serious medical condition that affects his hormonal system. (Photo by Brad Horn/Bread for the World)
by Christine Melendez Ashley
Misinformation about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) is far too prevalent. Sometimes it seems that I can’t check the news—or even Facebook—without reading another inaccurate claim about the program and its participants.
As a domestic policy analyst at Bread, I know that the facts tell a different story. SNAP served more than 46 million Americans in May. Here are some hard facts about the program:
- SNAP works exactly as it’s supposed to. SNAP was designed to respond quickly and efficiently to increased poverty and unemployment. When these spiked in 2008, 2009, and 2010, so did SNAP participation. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that participation will go down to pre-recession levels as the economy recovers.
- SNAP reaches exactly who it’s supposed to. The average SNAP household has a gross monthly income of $731 and countable resources, or assets, of $333. This is well below the strict national income and asset limits. Eighty-five percent of SNAP benefits go to the most vulnerable households—those with children, elderly, or disabled people.
- SNAP participation has increased mainly due to the poor economy. The largest increases in SNAP participation came on the heels of the recession (see above). Additionally, many more eligible Americans accessed SNAP in the last decade. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 72.2 percent of eligible Americans participated in the program in 2009 (the latest year for which we have data) compared to 56.7 percent in 2000.
- SNAP doesn't create dependency. Despite “welfare queen” and “don’t feed the bears” rhetoric suggesting food stamp recipients become life-long moochers, data show that SNAP participants are on the program an average of 9 months. In a family budget, food is the most easily squeezed line item. SNAP helps fill the food budget gap for households that become unemployed or underemployed.
- SNAP has the lowest fraud and error rates on record. Increased oversight and transparency at USDA has lead to more law-breakers caught and reported in the news media. The big picture shows they are the exception, not the rule. USDA tracks two types of fraud data: trafficking and error rates.
SNAP trafficking is the illegal, intentional exchange of SNAP benefits for cash. Trafficking has dropped from about 4 cents on the dollar to about 1 cent in the last decade for which data is available.
SNAP error rates account for over payments and under payments of benefits. SNAP payment accuracy is considerably higher than other major benefit programs including Supplemental Security Income (9 percent error rate) or Medicare Advantage Part C (11 percent error rate). SNAP’s error rate is at a record low of 3.8 percent. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the majority of SNAP payment errors are a result of administrative errors, not intentional fraud.
- Charity alone can’t feed everyone. Charity has an important role to play in feeding people. Like many of you during these tough times, I recently helped stock my church’s food pantry and local food bank. But the reality is that my church—and churches and food banks across the country—don’t have the capacity to help every person in need. And they won’t magically gain that capacity if we cut SNAP.
Churches and charities are already stretched thin. Food bank demand has increased nearly 50 percent and 34 percent of Americans admit they’ve cut back on donations to congregations and houses of worship. Our federal nutrition programs fund over 23 times as much food assistance as private charitable sources—$96.8 billion compared to $4.1 billion distributed by charity.
With budgets and spending at the forefront of everyone’s minds these days it’s easy to put a target on a program that’s grown as much as SNAP. But it’s dishonest to say SNAP is “out of control spending” when the facts show that it’s a temporary increase in a program meant to expand when people are struggling. Let’s stop perpetuating myths and start telling the truth about SNAP and how it works.
Christine Meléndez Ashley is an analyst at Bread for the World.
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