Jay Sjerven

The House Budget Committee on July 20 approved a fiscal year 2018 budget resolution, “Building a better America,” that aims to balance the federal budget within 10 years. The budget resolution “assumes” that restructuring the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the nation’s primary domestic food aid program, will result in savings of about $150 billion during the next 10 years. A separate provision of the budget resolution may reduce spending on SNAP by an additional $10 billion during the same timeframe.

Specifically, the resolution instructs the House Committee on Agriculture to make $10 billion in cuts over 10 years to programs under its jurisdiction, which would include SNAP. Nutrition assistance program advocates, on the basis of the budget resolution’s language, were concerned that the target for the spending cut will be SNAP.

The disclosure that the budget committee’s leadership assumed a separate $150 billion reduction in spending on SNAP over 10 years by means of restructuring the program was made by Rick May, the budget committee’s staff director, in response to questions posed by Representative Suzan DelBene of Washington. At the bill markup on July 19, Mr. May told Ms. DelBene that the assumption was most of the $150 billion in cuts would take place in the latter half of the 10-year budget proposal timeframe.

SNAP card
The budget resolution “assumes” that restructuring the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program will result in savings of about $150 billion during the next 10 years.

In fiscal year 2016, an average of 44,219,000 Americans received SNAP benefits in any given month. The number equated to about 13.8% of the U.S. population (321,418,820 in 2015). Total SNAP benefits provided in fiscal year 2016 totaled $66.54 billion with an average per-person benefit of $125.40 per month. According to the Food Marketing Institute, about 9% of grocery sales industrywide are by way of SNAP benefits.

Food manufacturers have partnered with government at all levels in ensuring the efficient delivery of food to recipients of federal nutrition assistance, including SNAP. The food industry has made significant investments to serving this customer base since the program’s inception. Notable was the investment in the Electronic Benefits Transfer program, which did away with paper coupons (food stamps) and dramatically improved benefit processing at the grocery counter while ensuring benefits were properly redeemed by purchasing approved foods.

Food manufacturers’ main focus in the ongoing debate over SNAP has been to ensure it remains a federally administered program as opposed to a patchwork of state block grants.

“The Grocery Manufacturers Association supports a uniform federal SNAP program with expanded nutrition education as a way to promote healthier diets for SNAP recipients,” a G.M.A. spokesman told Food Business News.

There is consensus in Congress that the federal government does have a role to play in helping the least fortunate among its citizens, but there is disagreement over just how large the government role should be. The view of the budget committee’s leadership and majority was that government has encouraged a culture of dependency with social welfare programs, such as SNAP, providing disincentives for the able-bodied among benefit recipients to find gainful employment and lift themselves out of poverty.

The budget committee leadership pointed out the number of SNAP recipients increased rapidly in the wake of the 2008 recession and legislation under the Obama administration that aimed to stimulate economic recovery but has been slow to decrease as economic conditions improved. Average participation in SNAP advanced from 28.2 million persons in fiscal year 2008 to a peak of 47.6 million in fiscal year 2013.

The proposed reductions to SNAP were panned by congressional Democrats. Representative James McGovern, ranking member of the nutrition subcommittee of the House Committee on Agriculture, said, “I’d like to point out that the majority of people on SNAP who can work, do work. Most people on SNAP are not expected to work or cannot work — they are children, senior citizens and people who are disabled. If we’re talking about how we can help transition people who can work into the workforce, you don’t do that by cutting the program by billions of dollars, or by cutting people off from food aid. That does nothing to help people find jobs, it only makes them hungry.”

Ellen Vollinger, legal director, Food Research & Action Center, Washington, said cuts envisioned in the House budget proposal would have drastic effects on the poor and working poor who currently qualify for SNAP benefits, and this, in turn, would adversely affect the greater economy.

“While Feeding America recognizes the need for fiscal responsibility, this ultimately will make it harder for people to maintain the nutrition and supports they need to find and keep good-paying jobs,” said Diana Aviv, chief executive officer, Feeding America, the nation’s largest organization of community food banks. “SNAP provides a vital tool to working families helping them bridge the gap been food needs and available resources.”