There are smart ideas to get more Americans working and off food aid. Block grants to states isn’t one of them.
By Thomas J. Vilsack,
The House Republican proposal to block grant the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is ill-timed and ill-advised. SNAP, formerly known as the food-stamp program, provides a lifeline for senior citizens, persons with profound disabilities, and working families with children relying on part-time hours at a minimum-wage job. Four out of five SNAP recipients are children, people with disabilities, the elderly, or working adults who don’t make enough to make ends meet.
As the economy improves, more people are moving off SNAP. Since participation hit its peak in December 2012, the number of people receiving SNAP benefits has declined by 1.5 million. Congressional Budget Office projections indicate a 2%-4% reduction in SNAP recipients annually for the next five years.
SNAP continues to reduce poverty in the meantime. More than 90% of SNAP recipients have incomes below the federal poverty level—that’s around $2,000 a month to support a family of four. More than 4.8 million Americans, including 2.1 million children, are lifted out of poverty when SNAP benefits are counted as income.
SNAP fraud and error rates are at or near historic lows, while every dollar invested in SNAP regenerates $1.74 in economic activity, according to a 2010 study by Moody’s Analytics.
The Republican House proposal suggests that block granting SNAP would cut costs by $125 billion over five years. Block granting will create a patchwork of different rules and regulations. But it won’t save taxpayer money. To do that, lawmakers must either reduce the number of SNAP participants, reduce benefits for current participants, or some combination of both.
To “save” $125 billion over five years would require at least 11 million fewer SNAP recipients, or a reduction in benefits equivalent to a cut of $2,431.58 every year for a family of four. That may not seem like a lot, but for a family of four with two small children under five, that’s the equivalent of more than four months’ worth of groceries.
Both the National Grocers Association and the Food Marketing Institute sent letters this month calling on Congress to maintain SNAP in its current form because their members know SNAP works and block grants won’t.
This is a program that effectively and efficiently combats poverty and expands access to healthy food—all of that with one of the lowest fraud and error rates across government. Rather than arbitrarily taking a budget axe to a program with a proven record of effectiveness and declining costs, common sense tells us that we should instead be working together to put those SNAP recipients who can work back to work.
That is exactly what a bipartisan majority in Congress agreed to do when they passed the 2014 Farm Bill, which included $200 million for states to test and evaluate employment and training strategies that will move people off of SNAP in the right way—by helping recipients build comprehensive skill sets and then matching them with the good-paying jobs they need to be able to move off the program.
Another surefire way to reduce SNAP costs the right way would be to raise the minimum wage. If Congress were to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, from the current $7.25 an hour, that would reduce the cost of SNAP by as much as $46 billion over 10 years, according to a report released last year by the Center for American Progress.
We should give these bipartisan solutions time to work. Combining better state-run employment and training programs that help people get good-paying jobs with other administration efforts like raising the minimum wage and making college and technical schools more affordable will expand opportunity, reduce poverty, and help the paychecks of working families go further.
There is an old saying that is appropriate to this debate: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Mr. Vilsack is the U.S. agriculture secretary.