Congress Needs to Focus on Improving, Not Cutting SNAP Benefits
Washington, D.C. – December 6, 2012 – A new Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) report, “Replacing the Thrifty Food Plan in Order to Provide Adequate Allotments for SNAP Beneficiaries,” explores the shortfalls of the Thrifty Food Plan, reviewing the extensive evidence that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is important to the health and well-being of the nation yet its benefits are built on a standard that is not adequate to meet need.
In other words, as long as the Thrifty Food Plan is artificially constructed in an impractical way and benefit levels for SNAP then are tied to the Thrifty Food Plan, SNAP benefits will continue to be inadequate for low-income households. The report finds that the government’s Low-Cost Food Plan is a better measure of adequacy. Yet – despite the extensive research showing the limits of current benefit levels and inadequacies of the Thrifty Food Plan – Congress continues to consider cuts to SNAP that would further limit the reach and effectiveness of this program and its ability to provide healthy diets.
The Thrifty Food Plan has its roots in the 1930s, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) began developing basic food plans at varying costs, all with the goal of providing consumers with “practical and economic advice on healthful eating.” SNAP benefits are calculated using the Thrifty Food Plan, which is the lowest of four cost plans and has its origins in one that was developed for short-term or emergency use.
“Even though SNAP recipients employ savvy shopping practices to stretch benefits, research shows that they cannot realistically afford and achieve the Thrifty Food Plan with their allotment. The plan includes impractical lists of foods, assumes people have access to particular foods at affordable prices when often they do not, and assumes people have unreasonable amounts of time available for food preparation,” said Heather Hartline-Grafton, DrPH, RD, FRAC Senior Nutrition Policy Analyst. “SNAP benefits are inadequate, in part, because they are based on this food plan with serious limitations and weaknesses.”
The FRAC report details the research which shows the Low-Cost Food Plan is a better and more realistic basis for calculating SNAP benefit levels, giving participants more adequate benefits. According to several studies, the Low-Cost Food Plan reflects what the foods that make up the Thrifty Food Plan actually cost, as well as what low-income families (whether or not on SNAP) say they need to spend for food.
Research, as well as experience, shows boosting SNAP benefits to more adequate levels can reduce hunger and poverty, and improve health. For example, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) included a temporary increase in SNAP benefits. USDA researchers found the increase helped reduce food insecurity by 2.2 percentage points among low-income households between December 2008 (pre-ARRA) and December 2009 (about eight months post-ARRA). Research by Children’s HealthWatch also found the ARRA boost contributed to positive impacts on children’s health. And while not focused on SNAP per se, a demonstration project providing $60 per month in added EBT-delivered benefits to purchase food for low-income children in summer months found a 19 percent reduction in food insecurity and 20 percent reduction in very low food security during the summer of 2011.
SNAP Challenges -- such as the one currently being taken by Newark Mayor Cory Booker -- also highlight the limitations of current benefit levels. In these Challenges, participants typically use the SNAP benefit average or maximum allotment as their budget for groceries. Participants find fresh produce and other healthier items often cannot fit in their budget, and find that living on the SNAP allotment adversely affects their concentration and energy.
“The research shows that SNAP benefit levels need to be improved, not cut as some in Congress are proposing,” said FRAC President Jim Weill. “SNAP is a great program but its gains are limited by the allotment shortfall. Cuts will cause more hunger, more poverty, and more ill health.”
Long considered the nation’s first defense against hunger, many Americans have recognized SNAP as a program that is important for the country. In a poll conducted for FRAC in August, three out of four Americans said that cutting food assistance was the wrong way for Congress to reduce spending.
“It’s time for Congress to recognize what the public already does – that SNAP is a program that’s important for the country and that cutting this program is going in the wrong direction,” said Weill. “It’s time for Congress to recognize how to make a good program stronger and make SNAP benefits adequate.”
The report is available on FRAC’s website (pdf).