Punishing Hard Work: The Unintended Consequences of Cutting SNAP

cliff effect booklet_Page_1Working in the nexus between policy, advocacy, and research, we hear story after story of how frustrating and arduous the climb out of poverty can be for parents of young children. We also see those stories reflected in data.  When we began working at our respective positions at the Center for Hunger Free Communities of Drexel University’s School of Public Health (Kate) and Children’s HealthWatch (Stephanie), we each brought years of experience working with families struggling to make ends meet. Stephanie’s expertise in food policy research and advocacy and Kate’s background in advocating for programs that promote self-sufficiency brought us face to face with the “cliff effect.”  The cliff effect happens when  even modest increases in household income (sometimes as little as $1) trigger significant reductions in or being totally cut off of assistance benefits, like SNAP (formerly food stamps),  leaving families with a net income decrease; simply put, they are worse off than they were before the increase in income, a counterintuitive result.

“It is hard to feel like you are stepping up.  Once you are able to get a job or a raise more is taken from you than you are making, leaving you in a worse position,” said Emily Edwards a member of Witnesses to Hunger. Witnesses to Hunger is a research and advocacy program at the Center for Hunger-Free Communities featuring the voices and photography of women and men who have experienced hunger and poverty first hand.

Emily just got a new job and was able to get full time hours.  With the excitement of finding work and at a job she loves also comes the fear that she might lose her SNAP benefits and her wages will not make up the difference.

“My fridge is already empty after the food stamps cuts on November 1st, and now I will lose even more of my benefits.  I try to budget my money but you can’t budget $1 and many times that is all I have, even with the new job.”

Emily is just one of so many who are struggling to meet her family’s needs on a very limited income.  Just as she begins to climb the ladder toward self-sufficiency, her benefits will drop off without any time to transition and find more stable ground.

While families strive to become self-sufficient, it is crucial that they have access to strong safety net programs like SNAP that assist them in achieving their goals of economic independence.  Research by Children’s HealthWatch and others has repeatedly shown that SNAP is an effective public health program – protecting health from the womb right through to old age.  Additionally, other research has show that it is a program that combats poverty and improves the economy. However, under current rules, SNAP recipients, like Emily, see cuts to their benefits that do not make up for modest increases in income.  In turn, this diminishes the positive impacts of the program by punishing people who have managed to get a raise, work extra hours, or increase their household resources. Because the decrease in benefit is greater than the increase in income, households struggle to pay for even basic living expenses such as food, rent, and utilities.  The problem is particularly stark for families with young children.  Caring for young children is expensive and enormously demanding on parents’ time.  In addition, young children are uniquely vulnerable – passing through a sensitive period of development in which they experience the fastest brain and body growth of their entire childhood.  They are, quite literally, growing the brain they will have for the rest of their lives.

Our new report on the cliff effect (to be released this week), Punishing Hard Work: The Unintended Consequences of Cutting SNAP, adds scientific evidence to experiences like Emily’s.  The impact of the SNAP cliff effect on the health of children and families is real; Children’s HealthWatch found that compared to young children in families consistently receiving SNAP, young children in families that experienced a loss or reduction of SNAP benefits  were at increased of risk of food insecurity, poor health, and developmental problems.

SNAP is an essential and effective program, helping families stay healthy and be economically secure. Key policy improvements to SNAP would ensure that when families increase their income, assistance benefits decline on a gentle slope rather than plunging off a sharp cliff. In this way, both family economic independence and young children’s health and development are supported. In the remaining days of this Congressional session, Congress could agree on and pass a Farm Bill, which includes regulations governing SNAP. A recent commentary in the Lancet and our report on the cliff effect, (to be released on December 12th), both by Children’s HealthWatch, show that cuts to SNAP will have detrimental and long-lasting effects on child health and nutrition. Strengthening SNAP is crucial for the future of this nation. Instead of the proposed cuts in the Farm Bill, our research shows that policy makers would more effectively assist families in achieving economic independence by improving the SNAP calculation to accurately reflect the real cost of living and increase eligibility limits and remove asset tests (by adopting broad-based categorical eligibility) to encourage economic independence. These changes, among others discussed in the report, enable gradual reduction of benefits for families as they work their way out of poverty are an effective investment in the future and productivity of this nation.

Read the full report, Punishing Hard Work: The Unintended Consequences of Cutting SNAP and check out our infographic on the cliff effect.