Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
A new map shows that SNAP benefits lag behind need, even as the GOP mulls different ways to cut back on food aid.
Nélida Bustamante is a savvy shopper. A 37-year-old resident of Chicago, she seeks out the savings that allow her to buy fresh groceries for her family. Fruit that is more ripe and a little cheaper, for example, or meat when it’s on sale. She doesn’t like feeding her children food out of a can if she can help it. They don’t like canned stuff either, she says. It lacks flavor.
Bustamante receives about $210 a month in food aid through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). It’s tough to make do with the unsteady wages from her job at a soap factory, so she has to make every purchase count.
“Sometimes it is enough, but sometimes I have to buy extra,” says Bustamante. “It all depends if I get full-time hours at my job. Sometimes they take hours away from me and sometimes it’s full time.”
For worse-off families, food aid is never enough. Even the maximum SNAP benefits provided to households with no net income do not cover the costs of food. In Cook County, Illinois, the average cost per meal on a low-cost plan runs to $2.26, while the per-meal value of food stamps is just $1.86. And it’s not just Chicago.
Food aid falls short of meal costs in 99 percent of U.S. counties and the District of Columbia, according to a new report from the Urban Institute. On average, SNAP benefits fall short of meal costs by $46.50 per person, per month. The findings stand in sharp contrast to current GOP budget debates about cutting food aid dramatically or setting work requirements for recipients.
A map of the Urban Institute’s research reveals the grim scenario faced by vulnerable families across the country. Across the continental U.S., the average cost for a low-income meal is $2.36, close to the value in Chicago. That cost is 27 percent higher than the average maximum benefit available to households with zero net income: just $1.86.
Click on a county in this interactive map to see the gap by place.
“For most recipients, SNAP supplements a family’s food budget,” reads the report. “But for the nearly 4 in 10 households that have zero net income, the maximum SNAP benefit is the only way for families to pay for the meals they need to receive minimum levels of nutrition and reduce food insecurity.”
Earlier in February, the Trump administration released a budget for 2019 that included a sweeping proposal: replacing electronic debit cards for SNAP with Blue Apron–style deliveries of “Harvest Boxes.” Critics greeted the suggestion as a non-starter, and possibly even a smokescreen for deeper cuts. U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue has since doubled down on Harvest Boxes. “They probably laughed at Fred Smith when he conceived of FedEx and the efficient distribution of packages to customers,” USDA under-secretary Brandon Lipps wrote in an op-ed this week.
The USDA suggested the more likely path to changing food aid in January, when the department released a set of guiding principles for Congress to consider while drawing up the next farm bill. One is to “[s]upport work as the pathway to self-sufficiency, well-being, and economic mobility for individuals and families receiving supplemental nutrition assistance.” As Purdue has explained, establishing work requirements for food aid is one of his top priorities for SNAP.
Bracing welfare reform is bound to meet resistance from Congress going into the midterm elections. Indeed, budget proposals from both the House and Senate include less harsh cuts to spending for food, housing, and healthcare. While the GOP proposals vary by their severity, they are all out of step with the reality of the wage and affordability crises in America. More than 42 million people received benefits through SNAP in 2017.
Disparities between available food aid and high food costs in the U.S. reach across vast cultural and demographic gulfs. The Urban Institute reports finds that the 20 counties with the largest gap between benefits and prices include elite urban coastal enclaves—New York, San Francisco, and Alexandria, Virginia—as well sparsely populated rural counties such as Blaine County, Idaho; and Leelanau County, Michigan.
In fact, the set of counties with the highest food costs includes at least one county in 40 different states plus the District of Columbia. For these areas, the price of a low-income meal is 47 percent higher than the value of SNAP aid.
For their research, Elaine Waxman and Megan Thompson of the Urban Institute and Craig Gunderson of the University of Illinois established the per-meal benefit value for SNAP, using data from 2015. The report focuses on individuals or families who receive the maximum benefit, meaning those with zero net income. To set an average cost per meal, the researchers use an adjusted value based on the USDA’s Thrifty Food Plan—a low-cost nutritional standard that a lot of Americans would find pretty uncomfortable. (Go ahead: Try making a low-income food plan yourself.)
Here’s what the Urban Institute’s research shows: Food stamps cover the actual cost of food in only 22 counties in the continental U.S. Most of those counties (18 of them) fall in the Valley in Texas. Everywhere else, the gap between assistance and costs strikes rural and urban places alike.
Cutting SNAP by $213 billion, or 30 percent over a decade, as the White House proposes to do, will only exacerbate a crisis for the country’s most vulnerable families. Adding work requirements for households that receive what’s left of the program will represent a different but substantial burden.
Consider the situation for María González, a resident of La Puente, California. She’s a 35-year-old single mother with four kids. She works two shifts a week at a restaurant and picks up hours cleaning at a construction site, among other odd jobs. “The [SNAP] coupons are not enough, but they help a lot,” she says. “I think it is 80 percent of what I buy.” (In Los Angeles County, the average cost of a low-income meal is 38 percent higher than the benefit of SNAP.)
For people like González, a work requirement of 32 hours per week—that’s the work requirement for housing aid being considered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development—would mean a terrific imposition. It might be a challenge for González to demonstrate enough hours every week. Or for Bustamante: The soap factory where she works does not always give her enough shifts.
Proposals to reform food aid by sharply reducing it run counter to the realities of the SNAP program. It’s incredibly efficient at reducing poverty, as recent research by the Urban Institute has shown, and it helped struggling families weather the Great Recession. At the same time, food aid is not enough for the very worst-off families, as the map above illustrates. And when food stamps run out for these families—the 4 out of 10 households that receive assistance—they experience hunger.
As with work requirements for healthcare and housing aid, austerity for food aid is unlikely in the near future. Trump’s Harvest Boxes are never going to feed 42 million low-income people three square meals every day. But cuts to the existing SNAP program, if and when they come, will mean difficult decisions for families.
“I search for the three Bs: bueno, bonito, y barato [good, appealing, and affordable],” González says of her food purchasing habits. “When I’m working and I run out of [SNAP] coupons, I work it out some way. They won’t stop eating. I cook beans or whatever. Sometimes I can’t pay the full electricity bill and I only pay half of it.”