SNAP Benefit Adequacy: What Does the Research Tell Us?
Originally published on FRAC ResearchWIRE.
The average participant in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) receives $1.40 per person per meal. Peer-reviewed journal articles, government reports, expert reviews, and community-based studies all concur — the SNAP benefit is inadequate for purchasing a healthy diet.
SNAP eligibility is based on a complex, multistep calculation of income and basic needs-expense deductions. This includes multiplying a household’s net income (after qualified deductions) by 30 percent, representing the percentage of household income expected to be spent on food. This calculation has not been updated since the 1960s and is one of several elements out of step with today’s economic reality. The SNAP benefit amount is based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Thrifty Food Plan (TFP), which also is outdated — last updated in 2006.
Beginning in the mid-2000s, a series of reports from Children’s HealthWatch was released that aimed to document how realistic it was to find the foods in the TFP market basket in local food stores of different sizes, and whether the maximum SNAP benefit would be sufficient to buy the TFP market basket at real world prices. Researchers found that the maximum benefit was inadequate to purchase the TFP market basket of foods in any size store, and nearly one-third of the foods in the TFP market basket were not even present in the stores for purchase. Further, peer-reviewed evidence demonstrates that SNAP benefits are inadequate for optimally supporting health, and that benefits typically run out in the third week of the month, spiking rates of hypoglycemia admissions in hospitals and driving requests for emergency food assistance.
The Institute of Medicine (now the National Academy of Medicine) as well as the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) have concluded that SNAP benefits are inadequate,83 and NASEM and other experts have recommended policymakers increase SNAP benefits. To achieve this goal, both Children’s HealthWatch and FRAC have recommended that USDA use the Low-Cost Food Plan as the basis for the calculation of the SNAP benefit, rather than the TFP. The Low-Cost Food Plan focuses on nutritious, but affordable, foods designed for long-term consumption and health. Given the staggering, avoidable costs associated with food insecurity, national discussion about implementing a higher SNAP benefit should also consider the reductions in health care and education costs that would be related directly to these improvements.
The robust body of evidence underscores why bipartisan groups of experts have concluded that a boost to the SNAP benefit amount would be critically important in reducing child poverty and advancing health equity. The science is clear — SNAP benefits should accurately align with the true cost of a healthy diet and economic realities, and this is best achieved through shifting to the Low-Cost Food Plan as the basis of the benefit calculation.
FRAC wishes to thank Stephanie Ettinger de Cuba, MPH, Executive Director; Allison Bovell-Ammon,
MDiv, Director of Policy Strategy; and Richard Sheward, MPP, Director of Innovative Partnerships at Children’s HealthWatch, headquartered at Boston Medical Center, for contributing this column to ResearchWIRE.