Families Need Food Assistance Reform to Reach Economic Independence

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is not just the nation’s largest nutrition assistance program, but it is also a key social infrastructure bridging the chasm separating “working hungry” families from families that are financially stable. But the SNAP formula that determines benefits based on how much it costs to provide families with good nutrition needs 21st century updates. A new SNAP calculation would help create the kind of bridge families need—moving us from a dangerous, swinging rope bridge between poverty and opportunity to a solid bridge with smooth on and off ramps, accessible and safe for all.

Without these improvements, families on the road to economic independence can hit a pothole known as the cliff effect.” When some families become more self-sufficient by earning even a modest increase in income, their progress can be halted by an abrupt termination or reduction of their SNAP or other benefits. Additional work hours, increased child support payments, or even a $0.50 or $1 per hour raise may not be economically advantageous to accept because it could mean that other benefits, like SNAP, are reduced or completely cut off. Families and children pay the price when assistance is removed too soon.

Young children are very sensitive to even small changes in their environments. Deprivation takes a quick and dramatic toll on their health and development. Children’s HealthWatch research shows that young children in families whose benefits had been cut off were more likely to be food insecure, in poor health, and at risk for developmental delays than were children who received consistent SNAP benefits. It is the same for families who receive reduced benefits; an additional effect of benefit reductions was an increased risk of hospitalizations. These sharp benefit reductions increase family hardships as well as societal costs in the form of higher healthcare and education spending.

There are several steps our country can take to ensure that SNAP can effectively support working families.

We can start by improving the benefit calculation to recognize the true cost of necessities for a healthy life, providing healthy food incentives and also changing the fundamental calculation. SNAP’s benefit calculations are based on outdated assumptions—the maximum benefit amount is set by the government’s estimate of the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan, which is not adequate to purchase the food needed for a healthy diet. A bill proposed in the House would change that calculation to use the Low Cost Food Plan—a more realistic reflection of people’s actual food needs and their costs.

A new SNAP calculation should also reflect the true cost of housing and healthcare. Families do not receive full “credit” for the housing, heating, or cooling costs they actually pay when their SNAP benefits are calculated, especially in high-cost regions. Instead there is a capped maximum amount that can be deducted from their income to represent housing and utility costs. Similarly, everyone uses and pays for healthcare, but currently only seniors and the disabled can claim out-of-pocket medical expenses as a deduction. For families of children with special healthcare needs, like asthma or allergies, medical costs can pile up especially quickly.

Additionally, considering income over a longer time period would help to define a more accurate average family income. If someone worked extra hours during the holidays or picked up an extra shift, the short-term increase to their income should not mean the difference between receiving SNAP or not. Furthermore, raising the maximum allowed income to a higher national standard would help workers everywhere to keep moving toward economic independence. Current policies set a very low national ceiling and states must act proactively to raise it higher.

Finally, we must reward saving by abolishing asset tests. Our national discourse sends a mixed message—“Save for a rainy day, but don’t save too much or you cannot receive any help.” We do not count the value of college and retirement savings accounts toward assets, thereby rewarding those who are already more economically stable. Ordinary savings accounts for everyday emergencies, on the other hand, can disqualify people from benefits, despite evidence showing that saving for emergencies promotes progress toward economic independence.

If we are serious about growing our economy and preparing for the jobs of tomorrow, then we have to think about the economy of today and the people who will be working in the jobs of tomorrow. If we keep more than one in every five children in poverty (22 percent in 2012) straining to reach opportunity from the other side of that dangerous rope bridge, how much talent and ingenuity have we lost? We celebrate the ones who make it across despite the odds, but why should the odds be stacked against them?  We should build our infrastructure so that the odds are in our children’s favor. How many “successful” adults can say that they were instantly independent once they began or even completed their education, or got their first job? Not many. Most had the support and guidance of family, friends, and/or mentors, perhaps also some grants or loans. Someone or something provided a sturdy bridge while they acquired skills and independence. It should be no different for families trying to exit poverty.

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This article was originally published in Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity.