SNAP decision could be backward

Clear progress in access to fresh, nutritious foods for children and the disabled in Iowa are at stake in the White House plan for SNAP.

The Trump administration has proposed a 2019 budget with deep cuts and fundamental changes in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Formerly known as Food Stamps, SNAP every month assures access to food for more than 350,000 Iowans and pumps more than $38 million into the state economy.[1]

The White House proposal would cut of about $213 billion from SNAP over the next decade. About 40 percent of benefits issued to SNAP recipients would be held back by the USDA. Some cuts would go to fund non-perishable food boxes. Other cuts would just reduce access to food for citizens.[2] The budget also would kick some recipients off the program.

Now adults who are not raising children or are disabled have just three-month of food aid over three years. The change raises the age for those who can get food under that provision to age 62. It was formerly 49. The younger adults would get nothing. Also the White House proposal eliminates the minimum benefit, and caps assistance to any household at six people.

These changes would have unfortunate effects on already high levels of food insecurity in Iowa.

An estimated 10.7 percent of Iowans are considered food insecure, meaning they lack consistent access to affordable, nutritious food.[3] SNAP assisted one in eight Iowans in fiscal year 2016. Of those families receiving SNAP benefits, 69 percent have children, and more than 25 percent of benefits go to households with family members who are elderly or disabled. The benefits are not overly generous. In December 2017, Iowa SNAP recipients received just $1.15 per meal.[4]

Food insecurity is correlated with obesity and chronic disease with adults[5] and poses serious threats to child development and school performance.[6] Research has shown that “every $5 in new SNAP benefits generates as much as $9 of economic activity by adults in families to receive benefits.” [7] SNAP spending contributes to local spending and cuts would hurt small grocers in rural Iowa.

Instead of an opportunity to choose nutritious food in the current debit card system, the administration would offer delivered boxes of foods such as canned meats, cereal and shelf-stable milk. The alleged savings from the change ignores the cost of delivery.

There has been clear progress in getting SNAP to provide access to fresh, nutritious foods for children and the disabled in Iowa. For instance, some Iowa communities have piloted a program called Double Up Food Bucks that doubles the value of food dollars up to $10 to purchase fresh produce at farmers markets in order to incentivize healthy eating.[8] Food boxes are a poor substitute for that kind of initiative.

The White House proposal takes Iowa backward on health and food access.

Posted by Natalie Veldhouse, research associate at the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project.


 [1] Iowa Department of Human Services, F-1 Food Assistance Program State Summary — January 2018.
 [2] Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “President’s Budget Would Cut and Radically Restructure SNAP Food Benefits,” February 2018.
 [3] U.S. Department of Agriculture, “Household Food Security in the United States in 2016,” September 2017. Table 4: Prevalence of household-level food insecurity and very low food security, average 2014-2016.
 [4] Ibid, Iowa Department of Human Services.
 [5] Food Research & Action Center, “The Impact of Poverty, Food Insecurity, and Poor Nutrition on Health and Well-Being,” December 2017.
 [6] Food Research & Action Center, “The Connections Between Food Insecurity, the Federal Nutrition Programs, and Student Behavior,” 2018.
 [7] U.S. Department of Agriculture, The Food Assistance National Input-Output Multiplier (FANIOM) Model and Stimulus Effects of SNAP. October 2010.
 [8] Iowa Healthiest State Initiative, “Iowa Healthiest State Initiative Expands Double Up Food Bucks Program in Iowa,” May 2017.

Thanksgiving thoughts on hunger

As we discuss and debate our fiscal future, proposals should be weighed by their effects on people, not with how well the line up with some ideological ideal.

Andrew Cannon photo
Andrew Cannon

Hunger will probably be the last thing on our minds this Thursday, as we enjoy Thanksgiving feasts.

But for thousands of our neighbors, hunger an everyday reality.

Each year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) measures food security in the United States. Food security is defined as having adequate food and nutrition at all times for a healthy and active lifestyle.

An average of 12 percent, or 340,000 Iowans lacked adequate food and nutrition, or was food insecure, over a three-year period ending in 2010.

This is certainly not a new problem, but it is one that is on the rise in recent years.

Thousands of Iowans lost jobs or saw income drop as a result of the most recent recession. Food insecurity rates subsequently rose. But that number has been on the rise for much longer than just the past several years. In the mid-’90s, about 8 percent of Iowans were food insecure. By 2003, that figure had risen to 9.5 percent. By 2005, nearly 11 percent of Iowans were food insecure.

Solutions for problems as complex as food insecurity are never obvious. One thing, however, is obvious: Cutting food assistance programs will not help.

There’s an epidemic of budget-cut fever right now. Lost in the fiscal austerity discussions, however, are the effects such cuts would have on those who have been hardest hit by the recent recession, continuously rising food and fuel costs, and stagnant wages.

While some food assistance programs like the Supplemental Food Assistance Program or SNAP (formerly Food Stamps) are safe — for now — from cuts, many others, including free and reduced-price school lunch, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), which distributes nutritious fruits, vegetables, meat and poultry and other foods to food banks and pantries, are at risk of severe cuts.

As we discuss and debate our fiscal future, proposals should be weighed by their effects on people, not with how well the line up with some ideological ideal.

I recognize that I have so much for which to be thankful. The adoption of that standard by lawmakers would only make me more grateful.

Posted by Andrew Cannon, Research Associate

Food insecurity data symptom of larger affliction

Food insecurity, though a big problem, isn’t the problem. It is merely a symptom.

Andrew Cannon photo
Andrew Cannon

Here’s the good news from this week’s Department of Agriculture report on food security in America: Fewer American households reported serious disruptions in access to food in 2010 than in 2009.

Here’s the bad news: Overall, the number didn’t budge among Americans experiencing some level of food insecurity due to a lack of money. Nearly 49 million Americans — 16 million of whom are children — experienced hunger or the threat of hunger* in 2010 — a year in which, by official measures, the economy was improving.

Here’s where the bad news tells us: Food insecurity, though a big problem, isn’t the problem. It is merely a symptom.

In a lecture at the University of Iowa Wednesday night and in a recent New York Times commentary, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich diagnosed the real problem: stagnant income and wages.

It’s a problem IPP has recently noted, too. Our State of Working Iowa 2011 report found that median wages have stagnated and, adjusted for inflation, are lower now than they were a decade ago. And while the employment picture in 2010 improved, too many of those jobs pay lower wages than workers’ previous jobs — or are simply low-wage jobs, period.

The 2010 food security figures show that combating this particular symptom of stagnating incomes and wages — and others like it — requires different policy strategies. To name just a few: Increasing the wages and incomes of the middle- and working-class will require boosting the minimum wage, enforcing labor laws already on the books and making it easier for workers to unionize and enter collective bargaining contracts with employers, and encouraging employers to pay living wages.

Now, how about some more good news?

The data from recent years also suggests that stimulus measures in the 2009 Recovery Act worked as intended. Food insecurity elevated as the recession worsened in 2008; despite upward-creeping unemployment in early 2009, however, food insecurity held steady. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as Food Stamps, was boosted by the Recovery Act, increasing benefits and eligibility.

In other words, we can shape the economy; policy can improve situations.

Effective policy, of course, requires a correct diagnosis. In this case, the correct diagnosis requires looking at things a bit more holistically — looking at wages and other economic indicators in conjunction with food security numbers.

* Each year, the USDA measures food security — the “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.” Participants in the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey — a nationally representative sample — are asked to respond to a series of statements and questions regarding the food situation in the household in the preceding 12 months. Household respondents responding negatively to several questions are classified as having “low food security;” those with negative responses to several questions and indicating disruptions in eating patterns due to a lack of resources are classified as having “very low food security.”

In the three years immediately following the onset of the recession (December 2007), the food insecurity rate among households has held steady at about 14.5 percent. In 2010, that meant 48.8 million individuals – 16 million of whom are children. This is a significant (both statistically and numerically) increase from the pre-recession years, when only about 36 million individuals, or 11 percent of households, experienced food insecurity.

Sample sizes are too small to provide one-year estimates for states; however, USDA does provide three-year averages. In Iowa, an average of 12.1 percent of households experienced food insecurity over the 2008-10 period, more than a third of whom experienced very low food security.

Posted by Andrew Cannon, Research Associate