Guest Columnist

USDA should leave vital SNAP benefits intact

Cathy Cory, with the Dept. of Human Services office in Cedar Rapids, holds samples Friday, March 17, 2006, of the debit cards now used by recipients of government food assistance. The cards replaced the coupons that were generally referred to as food stamps.
Cathy Cory, with the Dept. of Human Services office in Cedar Rapids, holds samples Friday, March 17, 2006, of the debit cards now used by recipients of government food assistance. The cards replaced the coupons that were generally referred to as food stamps. "That whole stigma of using the coupons, we eliminated that," Cory said.

The 2018 farm bill passed both the U.S. House and Senate, keeping intact the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program known as SNAP and formerly as food stamps. This happened despite efforts by some House lawmakers and others to jeopardize food assistance for more than 5 million Americans.

President Donald Trump signed the farm bill into law Dec. 20, but his administration has indicated it would like to see added eligibility restrictions move forward within the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

SNAP plays an essential role in ensuring Americans are able to get adequate food and nutrition in times of need. It is imperative that the program’s integrity be maintained, and further efforts to restrict the program through the rule-making process or other methods must be avoided.

Opponents of SNAP as it is today would like to expand existing work requirements for adults ages 18 to 60 to include first-time benefit recipients ages 50 to 60 and adults with dependents ages 6 and older — all of whom now are eligible without satisfying work requirements.

Such restrictions could limit millions of Americans’ ability to feed themselves and their families, create unnecessary administrative burdens, depress the purchasing power that drives local economic activity and cripple already-underfunded work training programs.

Stricter work requirements could have dramatic consequences for close to 3 million households with children, not to mention millions of Americans with disabilities and older adults for whom a work requirement could hinder their already fragile ability to become or remain food-secure in 2019.

Contrary to what opponents of the existing structure might lead you to believe, SNAP is an effective way to provide support for low-income, underpaid and unemployed Americans.

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What’s more, nearly 3 in 4 SNAP recipients worked during the month before and the month after they received benefits.

Almost two-thirds of recipients were on SNAP for less than two years, and most were working throughout that period.

Furthermore, a three-month time limit already exists for 18- to 49-year-olds without children.

The majority of SNAP households — more than 80 percent — have a gross income at or below the poverty line ($25,100 for a family of four, and $12,140 for a person living alone). The average SNAP recipient receives about $126 a month.

Limiting this support or eliminating it altogether could have serious implications for families already struggling to feed themselves and their families. Food insecurity has serious consequences for physical, mental and emotional health. This is of particular concern for children, who need enough food to grow and learn.

Research links food insecurity with increased risks of anemia, birth defects, cognitive problems, aggression and anxiety, behavior problems, depression, increased hospitalization rates and, in general, poorer health.

In contrast, research shows that access to and use of SNAP can lead to benefits that span generations — children of mothers who had access to SNAP during pregnancy had better education and health outcomes as adults compared to children of mothers who did not have access to SNAP.

This is essential when you consider what this small preventive effort means for the next generation. We know that success in school and a higher degree leads to a better job that will enable these one-time recipients to live above the poverty line and become food secure. Economists have shown conclusively that when children use SNAP, they are better off physically and economically in the long term.

However, children are not the only ones who suffer.

Adults and seniors face serious health concerns as a result of food insecurity.

Adults who use SNAP make fewer trips to the doctor, have fewer sick days and are less likely to experience psychological stress.

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Food-insecure older adults are two times more likely to report fair to poor health and are limited in their ability to perform everyday activities when compared to a food-secure counterpart.

Research also shows that older adults using SNAP are less likely to cut back on prescribed medication compared to their nonparticipant counterparts that are forced to pick food over medication.

Adding work requirements will only work against the overall goals the restrictions are trying to achieve — workforce development and long-term self-sufficiency.

There is good news. Data released by the USDA earlier this year show the number of food insecure households dropped slightly — from 12.3 percent to 11.8 percent (15 million households) in 2017. This decrease is encouraging and shows we have the programs and policies in place to address a vital need.

The data show that, if anything, lawmakers should increase the allotment to an amount that enables people to afford healthy, nutritious food and results in an even greater reduction in food insecure households.

So many of us happily gathered around dinner tables to celebrate with family and friends this holiday season. We must not forget those whose meals didn’t look quite so festive — those who were forced to crunch their dollars and count the days until their next SNAP deposit arrived.

• Lyndi Buckingham-Schutt is associate director of wellness and nutrition policy at the Harkin Institute in Des Moines.

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