Farm Bill is SNAP protection, but little progress


When I talk to my clients about SNAP, the most common refrain I hear is, “I only get $15 a month from SNAP. How is anyone supposed to survive on that?” For most recipients, SNAP is intended to be a supplement to other income. But when you’re an elderly couple with a combined income of $1,500 a month, you don’t have a lot of other leftover funds to supplement your $15 of SNAP. Once you’ve covered your rent, utilities, medical expenses, transportation, and other basic needs, every dollar matters.

Recent SNAP cuts have taken several forms: lowering benefit amounts, restricting eligibility, and reducing nutrition education. These all have an impact on the long-term health of the 556,000 Minnesotans who rely on SNAP to help make ends meet.

The most recent version of the farm bill doesn’t reverse those cuts, but it does protect most families from further benefit reductions (as opposed to the House proposal). SNAP spending will be reduced by $8 billion over the next ten years, but mostly through administrative changes, clearer eligibility guidelines, and increased oversight.

The Center on Budget Policy and Priorities summarizes the SNAP changes better than I ever could. The farm bill will “clarify certain SNAP eligibility rules, such as by ensuring that lottery winners and affluent college students are not eligible for SNAP; strengthen SNAP program integrity, such as through new measures to combat trafficking of benefits by retailers and recipients; test innovative strategies to connect more SNAP participants to employment… [and] improve access to healthy food options by requiring stores to stock more perishable foods and testing new ways for clients to make purchases with their SNAP benefit card… that could open up the program to more retailers with healthy options.”

Some of these changes might lead to good improvements (such as allowing farmers’ markets to accept SNAP benefits via smartphone app rather than costly wired POS systems). But make no mistake, SNAP recipients are still struggling and this farm bill won’t provide immediate relief.

After the $5 billion-per-year SNAP reduction in November (leading to a $36/month cut for a family of 4), food shelves across the country are reporting a spike in demand. Just because this spending reduction was a long-planned sunset to a temporary economic stimulus doesn’t mean that families absorbed the cuts easily. In November and December, one of the food shelves I work at enrolled over 100 new households.

Food shelves were originally intended to be a back-up source of aid in emergencies. These days, they’re how many families regularly balance their budget, often even visiting multiple food shelves to feed their families. SNAP isn’t just an income support for the unemployed; it’s also an income support for child-care workers, personal care attendants, retail cashiers, bus drivers, and custodians.

The truth is this: people need to eat, and they’ll find a way to do that. When workers don’t earn enough to keep their fridges full, they turn to public assistance. Taxpayers subsidize profitable corporations’ refusal to pay living wages. When those public assistance programs get cut, their recipients turn to food shelves. And when food shelves run out of adequate, nutritious food? People will eat what’s cheap, not what keeps them healthy as workers, students, and citizens. Hunger, whether or not we personally experience it, hurts all of us. It lowers worker productivity and student achievement. It increases health-care costs.

I’d encourage everyone to invite your Congressperson to your community’s food shelf. Invite them to participate in a client intake session with a hardworking family who just can’t balance the budget on their low wages. Thank your Congressperson for passing a farm bill that includes and largely protects SNAP. And then ask them: what will we do next to bring real relief to hungry families?