WASHINGTON – A leading Democrat on a House committee reviewing the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program insisted that the system is “efficient and effective” and expressed concern that majority Republicans may soon seek to impose drastic changes.
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), speaking at a House Agriculture Committee hearing looking into what formerly was identified as the food stamp program, said SNAP is “something that is working” and emphasized it “is a food program – it’s not a jobs program or a housing program.”
“And we’re told by charities and non-profits that they cannot feed the hungry on their own — they need a strong federal partner,” McGovern said. “They urged us not to cut SNAP. And, in fact, they urged us to strengthen the program by making it easier for eligible people to enroll and re-enroll in the program.”
The committee this year has conducted five hearings regarding SNAP, McGovern said, and he is left with “a sinking feeling in my stomach that they’re not leading to a place that’s good for millions of struggling Americans.” Congress has cut SNAP over the past couple of years, he noted, and “demagogued poor people and increased hunger in America.”
“Two-thirds of SNAP recipients are kids, seniors or the disabled – most of whom are not expected to work – unless some here want to repeal child labor laws or force grandma back to work,” McGovern said. “Of those who can work – the majority do work. But here’s the thing that should really trouble all my colleagues – there are those who work full-time in this country and earn so little that they still qualify for SNAP.”
No matter how much lawmakers may want to “tweak, change or supposedly want to reform SNAP,” McGovern said, the only real way to solve the problem is by increasing wages and adequately funding job training programs “so there are enough slots for people who need them.”
“I think enough damage has been done,” he added.
SNAP currently provides food assistance to about 46 million people. Last year more than $78 billion was budgeted for the program – representing more than 60 percent of mandatory spending within the Department of Agriculture, but the system is in line for drastic cuts under the federal budget proposed by the Republican-controlled House for 2016 and beyond.
That spending package slashes the program by $125 billion over the next 10 years and converts it into a block grant program to the states beginning in 2021.
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, states would have to cut an average of 11 million to 12 million people from the program each year between 2021 and 2025 if the cuts came solely from eliminating eligibility for certain categories of households or individuals. If the cuts came solely from across-the-board benefit cuts, states would have to cut an average of almost $55 per person per month in 2021 to 2025 (in nominal dollars).
Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, countered that claims maintaining that the ongoing hearings represented “some subversive attempt” to cut the program “could not be further from the truth” and that throughout this process “we have had an eye towards strengthening SNAP so that it doesn’t become a trap but rather a tool to help individuals move up the economic ladder.”
Despite McGovern’s claims, Conaway noted that a large number of households that receive SNAP benefits – many of those households with children – do not report any earned income. According to a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report, only 31 percent of SNAP households reported earned income. For households without children, the disabled or the elderly, it drops to only 1 out of 5 households having reported earned income.
“SNAP, along with other programs and approaches, should be temporary support as individuals improve their financial situation,” Conaway said.
One way the committee hopes to address issues within the program is to look for a solution to what Conaway called the “benefit cliff,” which occurs when an individual locates a job or receives a raise and therefore loses substantial SNAP benefits that might still be needed.
Conaway asserted that people are turning down work “because of the way we have things structured.”
Among those testifying before the panel was Elisabeth D. Babcock, president and CEO of Crittenton Women’s Union in Boston, which provides various services to low-income individuals. Babcock said the current system of public assistance “can help poor families survive but is not designed to bring families to economic self-sufficiency.”
“Based on our work, we believe it is possible to move some people to become fully self-sufficient but it takes significant, time, well-trained staff, and a program model that recognizes the complexity of people’s lives,” she said. “While our goal is to help people become as independent as possible, the safety net plays a critical role in stabilizing families so that they can begin the process of setting short and long-term goals that will lead them to a place where they can survive independent of safety net programs and supports.”