Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
There’s no better tool in the federal government’s anti-poverty arsenal.
One of the big surprises in the Trump administration’s latest budget was a reform proposal to replace food aid with packages of shelf-stable food items delivered to recipients’ homes. Critics laughed off the idea of “America’s Harvest Box” almost immediately. Swapping out the debit cards of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program with meal boxes a la Blue Apron drew so much derision that experts guessed that it must be a distraction. (Among those critics was Joe Sanberg, a founding investor in Blue Apron: “It sounds like a cruel and cynical joke: like Blue Apron, but for desperate poverty.”)
Even if administration figures Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and budget director Mick Mulvaney aren’t pitching care packages in good faith—even if the Harvest Box is a nothingburger—the Trump administration still has dramatic changes in mind for food aid. The White House budget calls for cutting SNAP by $213 billion, or 30 percent, in 10 years. And the USDA is on the record as supporting work requirements for food assistance.
The Trump administration’s call for austerity raises a few questions about food aid—or housing aid, or healthcare, or any other social safety net program that the White House intends to “reform” by adding work requirements. One is whether these proposals are motivated by anything more than ideology. Nutty suggestions like mailing meals to approximately 42 million low-income Americans (as a cost-saving exercise, no less!) hint that Mulvaney and company are not disinterested bean counters looking to save a few bucks.
Another fair question: What exactly is the case for reform? Food stamps, the outdated name for SNAP benefits, still serve as a bugbear for the right. For decades, conservatives have invoked “food stamps” as a dog whistle for wasteful spending with a barely coded racial pejorative subtext, a gender-neutral corollary to “welfare queens.”
The GOP has never abandoned its animus toward food aid; the party also hasn’t updated it much. Maine Governor Paul LePage, for example, has threatened to withdraw his state from SNAP if the USDA doesn’t allow him to ban the use of benefits to purchase sugary foods or beverages. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker wants to require drug testing for any adults who receive food aid. State laws in Maine and Massachusetts mandate that food aid EBT cards have photo ID on them, even though it doesn’t work to stop fraud. Then there are the high-profile abuse cases, like the lobster-buying, vape-toting, job-refusing SNAP surfer bro—darlings of Sean Hannity and the like.
Outside the Fox News echo chamber, most SNAP households include a child, a person over the age of 60, or a person with a disability. Whatever food stamps might or might not have done to earn the right’s ire, today, the fact is that SNAP works.
Food aid is one of the best tools in the federal shed for helping struggling families to lift themselves out of poverty and into independence. Giving people food to eat, and children especially, is a way to shore up the economy, to look at the program through a narrow financial lens. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 93 percent of SNAP spending goes directly to households for food purchase. In other words, any changes to the program that add administrative costs or hurdles, such as drug testing or work requirements, take food off people’s plates. And SNAP caseloads and spending alike are falling already after reaching a peak in 2013, so the program isn’t adding to budgetary pressures.
Putting aside moral standards of decency, the U.S. saves money by helping people to eat rather than watching them go without, or sacrifice other essentials like housing or healthcare.
SNAP benefits helped 8.4 million people leave poverty behind in 2015. For families with children, food aid helped to reduce the poverty gap—that’s the distance between a family’s income and the federal poverty line—by 37 percent the same year. Food assistance is especially important in alleviating deep poverty, which is when families make less than half of the federal poverty level. SNAP benefits helped to cut the number of children living in deep poverty by half.
If that doesn’t convince would-be reformers, then the trend line should: After a surge from the Great Recession, which saw SNAP spending spike from $30.4 billion to $76.1 billion over 6 years, benefits levels are on the decline. It’s down to $63.7 billion for fiscal year 2017 and falling.
These antipoverty figures, from a report released by the Urban Institute on Thursday, show that the SNAP program should not be folded, hedged, of otherwise reformed. It works just fine the way it is. If anything, lawmakers ought to double down on food aid. Since the Great Recession especially, food assistance has helped millions of households climb out of poverty—across race, region, household composition, and ability status. These benefits are especially critical for households experiencing the worst poverty in the country. Sharp reductions in poverty in the Midwest—and in deep poverty in the South and among non-metropolitan households—suggest these benefits are reaching a lot of people who support the party that is trying to dismantle SNAP (as is so often the case).
Such deep poverty is an underused metric for assessing social safety net programs. Gradations of poverty matter. “A reduction in deep poverty can reflect an improvement in family circumstances even when the overall number of people in poverty remains unchanged,” the Urban Institute report reads.
Recipients who got the most out of SNAP benefits include children, non-metropolitan residents, and working families. (The Urban Institute’s model measures the impact of food aid by using the Supplemental Poverty Measure and by correcting for underreporting among respondents who receive assistance.) While participation in SNAP has been decreasing naturally, many households that qualify for the program do not participate. Boosting participation for eligible families would be most helpful for people age 65 and older.
It’s hard to understate how the Great Recession tested the American social safety net. Enrollment in SNAP rose from 26.3 million monthly participants in FY 2007 to 47.6 million in FY 2013, according to the report. Enrollment is still high, but it started to fall in 2014 and continues to do so. SNAP enrollment was down to 42.1 million people for this last fiscal year. That’s another way of saying that food aid is working to help families find their footing financially.
It’s worth considering, and hard to imagine, what the U.S. would look like today without the same social safety net. In 2015, the year of the Urban Institute’s focus, about 41 million Americans were living in poverty. Absent SNAP, that figure would be closer to 49 million people. But that by-the-book estimate doesn’t completely capture the counterfactual of what America would look like in the aftermath of the Great Recession without SNAP. Millions more households, families with children or seniors, would have to make choices nobody should have to make about whether to pay for shelter, food, or medicine.
Visionaries in the White House are willing to give that a go. It goes without saying that it’s a lot easier to distribute EBT cards than entire meals. Consider any of the dozens of ways that a Trump lunch could go awry: It could never arrive; it could contain ingredients that conflict with allergies or religious restrictions; it could be stolen or spoiled. A massive food-postal-industrial complex would have to be built to track where recipients live, where they work, where their children live, where their parents live, and what all of these people should eat—every meal, come rain or shine, seven days a week. What about this project is conservative?
Perhaps it’s not worth getting distracted by this, as it’s not going to happen, and neither in all likelihood are the budget cuts proposed by the White House. Indeed, feeding the media’s hunger for Trump-era moral outrage may be Harvest Box’s sole intended purpose. But cuts to food aid seem inevitable.
Conservatives should ask why. It’s cheaper by far to give families food in a way that helps them out of poverty than it is to treat the more serious social ills—from homelessness and poor health to drug addiction and all our other American “diseases of despair”—that inevitably follow.