March 6, 2017
As a lead-up to the 2018 Farm Bill, around which discussions and debate in Congress have already begun, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition is previewing some of the major programs and policies advocates need to know in order to effectively engage. The first post in our series, “Path to the 2018 Farm Bill,” covers the nutrition title; specifically the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), by far the largest program in the farm bill from a funding standpoint. Future blogs in this series will cover conservation, farm commodity and crop insurance programs, and the newer farm bill programs for value-added and organic agriculture, local and regional food systems, and beginning and underserved farmers and ranchers.
The farm bill is a comprehensive, multi-year piece of legislation that covers a diverse array of federal farm, food, fiber, forestry, and rural policies and programs. The last farm bill, in 2014, contained 12 titles and was estimated at the time to have a five-year cost of $489 billion. The largest title by far in terms of funding is the Nutrition Title, which is estimated to account for nearly 80 percent of the total budget in the 2014 bill. The largest portion of the Nutrition Title, in turn, is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – formerly referred to as food stamps.
SNAP: Nutrition Assistance for Low-Income Families
Originally created under the Food Stamp Act of 1964 and renamed in 2008, SNAP was designed to help assist lower-income families with food purchases. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA):
SNAP offers nutrition assistance to millions of eligible, low-income individuals and families and provides economic benefits to communities. SNAP is the largest program in the domestic hunger safety net. [USDA’s] Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) works with State agencies, nutrition educators, and neighborhood and faith-based organizations to ensure that those eligible for nutrition assistance can make informed decisions about applying for the program and can access benefits. FNS also works with State partners and the retail community to improve program administration and ensure program integrity.
SNAP targets food-assistance to America’s most vulnerable populations – 75 percent of SNAP households include a child, an elderly person, or a person with disabilities; 82 percent of all SNAP benefits go to such households. According to Census data using the Supplemental Poverty Measure, SNAP lifted 4.7 million Americans out of poverty in 2014 (the year the last farm bill was passed). SNAP’s ongoing, positive impact on low-income families and children has been well documented, yet the program remains controversial in the public and within Congress.
Every five years SNAP, along with many other nutrition, nutrition education and food assistance programs, is reauthorized as part of the farm bill.
Two Bills or One?
From time to time, a fundamental and very contentious debate swirls around the farm bill — whether or not the farm bill should be split from one bill into two, one for nutrition and anti-hunger programs and one for farm programs. This debate raged in 1981 and again in 1995/6 and, most recently, in the lead up to what became the 2014 Farm Bill. During the last farm bill debate the most conservative faction in the House of Representatives attempted to split the farm bill in two with nearly devastating consequences. Eventually, the bill was stitched back together again and became law in 2014.
Some who support a two-bill approach cite the cost of SNAP as their primary reason. Others oppose major features of the program outright, while still others express offense at debate over farm programs being overrun by discussions of food and nutrition policy.
Critics of splitting the Nutrition Title from the farm bill argue that the comprehensive nature of the bill provides several important advantages over having a series of individual bills for each issue area. The main advantages of a comprehensive farm bill include a predictable opportunity for more comprehensive treatment of food and agricultural issues and plenty of logrolling and vote trading opportunities between urban and rural policymakers who may not otherwise have many reasons to work together.
A not-so-hidden secret to this contentious debate is the political reality that a two-bill approach would have major repercussions for the farm part of the farm bill, especially commodity and crop insurance subsidies. Absent liberal and moderate urban and suburban votes to protect SNAP by also voting for commodity and crop insurance subsidies, it would difficult if not impossible to continue political support for the farm subsidies. By the same token, support for improving food stamp program benefits, as occurred for instance in the 2002 and 2008 farm bills, would also be more difficult to achieve politically were SNAP divorced from farm programs.
Notably, the Republican Chairmen of both the House and Senate Agriculture Committees have to date vocally opposed any division of the 2018 Farm Bill. Both farm and commodity groups, as well the nutrition and anti-hunger communities, are also opposed to this division. Nonetheless, there are still loud voices within Congress and among right wing think tanks calling for a two-bill strategy in 2018.
As it did in 1995, the issue of transforming SNAP into a state block grant program could also emerge as a major issue this time around. Similar to House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) in the mid-90s, today’s House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) has been at the forefront of a group of Republicans who favor converting SNAP into a state block grant program. As a block grant, each state would receive a limited amount of SNAP funds and would not be able to seek more, even if they saw an increased need. As a result, the block grant proposal would cut the SNAP program by well over $100 billion over the next decade.
As a block granted program, states would have broad authority over how to use SNAP funds – a process that critics of block grants argue has not gone well for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, which was block granted beginning in 1996. According to a 2015 analysis of state spending on TANF under the block grant program, only about 26 cents of every block grant dollar went to cash assistance for the poor, and only half went to any type of core welfare programs.
While a block grant proposal could come up in the context of the farm bill, if it does receive attention in this Congress it is more likely to come in the form of a budget provision as part of either the FY 2018 or FY 2019 budget process. If this were to transpire, the Agriculture Committees would be directed by the budget resolution to find huge savings in the SNAP program that could likely only be achieved through block granting. This would occur in the context of a budget reconciliation bill rather than in the farm bill.
Farm, anti-hunger, and nutrition advocates are united in opposing block granting SNAP. A recent letter from over 500 such organizations, including NSAC, urged Congress not to propose cuts to the farm bill, including SNAP.
What do SNAP Defenders Say?
Defenders note that participation in SNAP rises during economic downturns and falls when the economy improves. SNAP is one of the most responsive federal program in assisting families and communities during economic downturns, and one of the major federal programs helping lift people out of poverty and food insecurity. Defenders also argue that cuts to SNAP – whether they come as radical structural changes like the block grant proposal or through less draconian cuts to the existing federal program – are an egregious attack on a program that works well though with benefits that need to be increased.
Nationally, SNAP recipients receive an average of $4.18 per day or $1.40 per meal. Advocacy groups have championed such campaigns as the ‘Food Stamp Challenge’ in an effort to raise awareness of the insufficiency of current SNAP benefits. Political efforts to increase SNAP funding, such as Congresswoman Adams’ Closing the Meal Gap Act of 2016, highlight necessary changes to the program, including an increase to the minimum benefit from $16 to $25 and deductions for medical expenses of seniors and disabled individuals.
SNAP Costs Decreasing
Claims of the high cost of SNAP are further minimized by a recently published report from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), which names SNAP as one of the only entitlement programs that is projected to have negative net growth through 2027. Considering that SNAP accounts for two thirds of farm bill spending, most of the projected savings in the farm bill over the next decade will come from the nutrition title. A new CBO estimate of the cost of the 2014 Farm Bill shows that the farm bill is now projected to cost $104 billion less than was estimated when the bill was passed in 2014, a cost reduction nearly entirely due to the declining cost of SNAP as the economy continues to improve.
House Agriculture Committee SNAP Hearings
Over the last two years the House Agriculture Committee has conducted an in-depth investigation of SNAP through a series of hearings, exploring views on SNAP throughout their series “The Past, Present, and Future of SNAP.” The Committee released a summary of these 16 hearings and testimony from 60 witnesses was released in December 2016.
Though the results of the hearings overwhelmingly show that SNAP has been successful at serving low-income families, has had an low rate of fraud or abuse, and has in fact come in under budget estimates by billions of dollars, the House report still includes calls for cuts and changes to the program, most notably through more stringent work requirements.
The issue of work requirements for program participants who are not children, the elderly, or disabled is likely to receive attention during the farm bill process. On that point, a recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) points out that a high percentage of SNAP recipients already work. Moreover, the report finds that SNAP benefits actually incentivize work through deductions for earned income to reflect the cost of work-related expenses.
Importance to Farmers
As noted above, SNAP is important to farmers for the politically strategic reason that without it the farm bill, especially the commodity and crop insurance subsidy programs, would have great difficulty ever becoming law. But SNAP is important economically as well. Approximately five percent of total food expenditures in the US are purchased with SNAP dollars. Thus, significant cuts to the program would surely lead to lost profits for America’s farmers and ranchers.
Healthy Food Access
SNAP also funds a number of sub-programs that provide significant benefits to farmers, ranchers, and rural communities, while at the same time improving access to fresh, healthy food for low-income consumers and communities. These programs include the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentives (FINI) Program, which helps SNAP users purchase more fresh fruits and vegetables at locations like farmers markets, and the Community Food Projects Competitive Grants Program (CFP), which awards grants to eligible nonprofits, tribal organizations, and food program service providers to promote self-sufficiency and food security in low-income communities.
At a recent House Agriculture Committee hearing on SNAP, the focus was on the question of whether SNAP recipients should be allowed to use their benefits to buy soda, sweets, and other less nutritious food items. Recent reports indicate that SNAP recipients use about 20 cents on the dollar for snacks, desserts, soda, candy and the like, roughly the same as other consumers not receiving SNAP.
The preponderance of the testimony at the hearing, as well as Member comments, went against making purchase restrictions part of SNAP. Nonetheless, it would be surprising if this issue did not get raised again during farm bill markup.
The Future of SNAP in the 2018 Farm Bill
The future of not only nutrition assistance programs, but also commodity, crop insurance, conservation, and sustainable agriculture programs, rely on the timely passage of the 2018 Farm Bill. Questions abound as to whether or not political divisions among House Republicans over the Nutrition Title will slow this process down or halt it altogether, as happened in the last farm bill round, or whether this time around things will work more smoothly. It is clear attacks on SNAP, both through threats to convert it to a block grant through the budget process, or to cut it in substantial ways thought the farm bill process, would very likely put the entire farm bill in jeopardy. Hence, no single factor more than this one bears watching as the farm bill process moves forward, as it could well determine whether or not a new farm bill will be signed into law by or before September 30, 2018 when the major farm provisions in the current bill expire.