Congress Should Preserve SNAP Policies That Help States Shield More Families From Hunger

The federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — called CalFresh in California — provides food assistance to more than 4 million low-income Californians, mainly families with children. At a modest $1.63 per person per meal, CalFresh benefits have helped many households put food on the table during difficult economic times. Unfortunately, changes currently under consideration at the national level could weaken this critical resource for struggling California families.

Congressional efforts to reauthorize the Farm Bill — the package of legislation that, if passed, will set much of the nation’s agriculture and nutrition policy for the next several years — have picked up steam in recent weeks, and both the House and the Senate versions of the bill would make large cuts to SNAP. One proposed change included in both bills would restrict the flexibility that states now have in administering SNAP, thus scaling back or eliminating program features that have helped California to respond to high poverty and unemployment in the wake of the Great Recession. On top of any new cuts that occur, an already scheduled across-the-board reduction in benefits will affect all SNAP recipients starting November 1, costing a household of four approximately $25 a month in lost benefits — the equivalent of about half a month’s worth of meals over the course of a year.

The Senate’s version of the Farm Bill, which passed on June 10 with bipartisan support, contains about $4.1 billion in cuts to SNAP. The bill would impose restrictions on state “Heat and Eat” policies, which enhance SNAP assistance for families who also participate in the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). In addition to boosting benefits for many households, the Heat and Eat option helps states simplify paperwork and reduce administrative costs. California’s Heat and Eat policy went into effect January 1, 2013 and would be affected by the proposed change. Nationwide, it is estimated that the Senate bill’s cuts would reduce SNAP food assistance for 500,000 households by an average of $90 per month.

The House version of the Farm Bill, which is being debated this week, would have even more damaging repercussions for low-income families living with food insecurity. This bill would cut about $21 billion from SNAP, causing nearly 2 million people nationwide to lose benefits. The House version, like the Senate’s bill, includes restrictions on the Heat and Eat policy, but on a larger scale, affecting approximately 850,000 households. It would also impose a number of other restrictions. Most notably, the House bill would eliminate the “broad-based categorical eligibility” option, which over 40 states — including California — have used to broaden SNAP eligibility to more families in need, particularly low-income working families with high child care and housing costs.

The House bill would also cut funding for nutrition education, end SNAP incentive payments to states for improving program administration, and cause more than 200,000 low-income children to lose access to free school meals. On Monday, the White House issued a statement that the President would veto the House version in its current form, pointing out that the bill takes too much from programs like SNAP that prevent hunger and does not include needed reforms to crop insurance subsidies.

One in six California households have difficulty affording a nutritionally sufficient diet. CalFresh has proved critical in softening the harshest effects of hunger, particularly for children — who make up nearly three-fifths of CalFresh recipients. Researchers examining the impact of early childhood access to SNAP benefits (formerly known as food stamps) have found that those who participated in the program have significantly better outcomes as adults in terms of health, educational attainment, earnings, and self-sufficiency.

As Congress shapes the direction of the nation’s agriculture and nutrition policy for the coming years, federal policymakers should preserve states’ ability to connect more families with SNAP and augment the amount of food assistance households may receive. This is especially important for states — like California — that are still struggling with high poverty and unemployment after the deepest economic downturn in generations.

— Hope Richardson