Craig Gundersen Trump's new SNAP rules threaten a food stamps program that is an American success story

Making sure all Americans have enough food to eat has long enjoyed bipartisan support; let us hope that continues.
Image: SNAP cut protest
Supporters listen as Rep. Donald McEachin, D-Va., holds a news conference with faith leaders to "urge lawmakers to reject proposed cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in the Farm Bill" on May 7, 2018.Sarah Silbiger / CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images file
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By Craig Gundersen, ACES Distinguished Professor in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics at the University of Illinois

On Wednesday, the Trump administration instituted a policy that would lead to hundreds of thousands of people losing access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. This represents a frustrating setback for a program which has, up until now, enjoyed bipartisan support.

SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, is an American success story. It was established more than 50 years ago to address the menace of hunger in our country. Since then, multiple studies have demonstrated that the program is responsible for profound reductions in food insecurity. Unfortunately, Trump and new Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg have both made proposals that would do grave harm to SNAP and its critical role in the American social safety net.

Unfortunately, Trump and Michael Bloomberg have both made proposals that would do grave harm to SNAP and its critical role in the American social safety net.

Before we get into those proposed changes, though, it’s important to remember why SNAP succeeds while other government programs may fall short. To be responsible stewards of taxpayer money, a social safety net like SNAP should be directed toward the most vulnerable among us. This goal is achieved by SNAP’s eligibility criteria which ensures that only those with limited incomes and assets participate. In addition, the benefits received by families are inversely related to income such that those with fewer resources get more benefits, and vice-versa.

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A social safety net should also be available to vulnerable households when times of need arise. At the federal level, SNAP fulfills this role by automatically expanding in times of more need and contracting in times of less need. This contrasts with other programs, like housing assistance programs, which only expand if additional funds are legislatively authorized. Especially in times of greater need, this is not as likely. At the family level, this translates into SNAP always being available. Given the challenges facing many families in escaping poverty, the ability to rely on SNAP is critical. (Despite these challenges, over half of SNAP recipients are on the program for less than one year in any given spell.)

Fortunately, most Americans have never fallen into desperate enough straits to qualify for SNAP and, of these, many are unlikely to ever need SNAP benefits. However, tens of millions of Americans have relied on SNAP benefits at some point in their lives to weather difficult times. And, among those of us who have not yet needed SNAP, millions of us will likely face times when either ourselves or our family members need to use SNAP benefits.

When facing these struggles, we would like to be treated the same as others in our community and not be singled out for differential treatment. SNAP does this by allowing participants to shop in the same outlets and check out in the same lines as everyone else. More important, SNAP gives families the freedom to make their own decisions about food purchases. Because SNAP treats recipients with dignity and gives them autonomy, it has a remarkably high participation rate among eligible families especially in comparison to other assistance programs that do not provide this level of respect.

Given SNAP’s success, then, Trump's and Bloomberg’s changes are frustrating.

Trump has proposed a few things that would eliminate SNAP eligibility for millions of Americans. The work requirement has already been formalized. But of particular concern is the proposal to eliminate states’ ability to set higher gross income and asset eligibility thresholds. Along with forcing SNAP recipients off the program, this would create serious disincentives for working and saving.

In terms of the former, many SNAP recipients are still net income eligible despite having gross incomes far above the federal threshold. Under current rules, SNAP recipients would continue their current work patterns. In contrast, with a lower threshold, the “tax” on their earnings at the cutoff would be so substantial that recipients would likely cut back on their hours worked in order to maintain eligibility. A similar scenario holds for the asset test — people would be forced to spend down their assets or not accrue assets in order to maintain eligibility. I don’t think it is the intention of the Trump administration to discourage work and savings, but that would likely be the outcome.

During his time as mayor of New York, Bloomberg also proposed changes to SNAP in his city that would have disrupted the dignity and autonomy given to SNAP recipients. In particular, he wanted to prevent low-income New Yorkers from using SNAP benefits to purchase sugar sweetened beverages such as iced tea, colas and energy drinks. In doing so, he stigmatized recipients and implied they should not be allowed to make their own shopping choices. Interestingly, Bloomberg did not propose that city worker paychecks or his generous tax breaks to his fellow multimillionaires could only be used to spend money on “healthy items.”

SNAP needs to be preserved — and even expanded — as an American treasure. Making sure all Americans have enough food to eat has long enjoyed bipartisan support; let us hope that continues.