Food insecurity is one of the leading public health issues in the United States. Despite the end of the Great Recession, the nation’s food insecurity rate remains at very high levels. In 2012, almost 50 million Americans lived in food insecure households. The existence of food insecurity is a problem in-and-of-itself; compounding the problem are its multiple demonstrated negative health consequences.
The extent of food insecurity and its attendant consequences would be substantially higher without the food assistance safety net in the United States. The largest food assistance program is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program). In 2012, approximately 47 million people received SNAP benefits totaling $74 billion.
The central goal of SNAP is to reduce food insecurity. Multiple studies have shown that, after properly controlling for negative selection into the program, SNAP succeeds in meeting this goal. Recent research shows that SNAP participants are between 14.9% and 36.6% less likely to be food insecure than eligible SNAP non-participants.
Despite the success of SNAP in meeting its central goal, policymakers have proposed two broad sets of changes to the program. The first reduces average benefit levels. In November 2013, the early expiration of the increase in benefits from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) reduced benefits to the levels they would have been without the additional ARRA funding. The House and Senate further cut SNAP benefits by approximately $8.6 billion over the next 10 years primarily through changes in the connection between SNAP benefits and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).
Near-term, reduced benefits will diminish the effectiveness of SNAP in reducing food insecurity. The fundamental structure of SNAP remains unchanged, however, so the impact of the cuts on the efficacy of SNAP in the longer-term will be minimal.
In contrast, several recent proposals to place restrictions on SNAP purchases would fundamentally change the structure of SNAP. The most well-known proposal to restrict SNAP was by the New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and Human Resources Administration. It would have banned persons from using SNAP benefits to purchase most beverages containing more than 10 calories per 8-ounce servings. This ban would have included sports drinks, such as Gatorade; soda; vegetable drinks such as V8; and iced tea drinks. Other efforts to restrict SNAP purchases along similar lines have been put forth in Maine, Wisconsin and South Carolina.
These proposed restrictions stem from the mistaken perception that SNAP recipients are more likely to be obese that eligible non-recipients. In fact, most research has shown that SNAP participants are less likely to be obese than eligible non-participants. Given these research findings, there is little reason to believe that restrictions will lead to reductions in obesity and they may actually lead to increases in obesity.
The impact of these proposed restrictions on food security, however, would be clear—the restrictions will lead to increases in stigma and transaction costs, which will lead to fewer households entering the program and many households leaving the program. Stigma would increase since participants would feel singled out as being irresponsible and incapable of making well-informed food purchases for their children and themselves. More broadly, the restrictions contain the implied message that that SNAP recipients have worse diets and are more likely to be obese. Costs associated with using SNAP benefits will also increase—first due to a need to devote extra time to ascertaining which food items are and are not eligible for purchase with SNAP benefits, and second, due to stores’ higher costs of implementing these restrictions. The number of stores accepting SNAP benefits will decline if restrictions were put into place. The result is that SNAP recipients will need to go longer distances to use their SNAP benefits.
In light of the lack of proven benefits to restricting SNAP benefits and the clear costs to restricting benefits—increases in food insecurity and general declines in well-being among low-income Americans—USDA has correctly rejected all proposals to restrict SNAP benefits. Let us hope that USDA continues to reject these proposals and, instead, we can put our time and effort to identifying new and creative ways to reduce food insecurity and its health consequences in the United States.
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