By Michael Coleman
WASHINGTON – A White House plan to replace federal food stamps with groceries delivered by mail isn’t likely to become reality anytime soon, but the idea signals a looming budget battle over free nutrition programs.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, provides 44 million low-income people with government-issued benefit cards for purchasing groceries at retail stores. In 2016, about 471,000 New Mexicans, or 23 percent of the state’s population, received SNAP benefits, often referred to as food stamps.
But President Donald Trump’s 2019 budget request, released this month, suggested federal taxpayers could save 50 percent over retail costs – about $129 billion over a decade – if the government curtailed the SNAP grocery allotments to each household and instead mailed them “America’s Harvest Boxes.” The crates of food could be filled with juice, grains, cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans, canned meat and fish, fruits and vegetables and “shelf-stable” milk, the administration said.
Americans who receive $90 a month or more in SNAP benefits – about 16.4 million households total and 81 percent of all SNAP households nationwide – would begin receiving boxes of food along with reduced credit on benefits cards for their grocery purchases, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The White House budget document called the proposal “a bold new approach to nutrition assistance.” But the proposal must have congressional approval to be enacted, and early reaction from Capitol Hill has been chilly.
Advocates for the hungry in New Mexico and in Washington panned the president’s “harvest box” plan, but said their bigger concern is Trump’s overall SNAP budget request, which would reduce eligibility and cut funding across the board more than $215 billion over 10 years – or roughly 40 percent, according to the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
But some say the proposal is worth considering, because it puts an emphasis on nutritious food over junk food and helps ensure families have easier access to such food, especially where grocery stores are not nearby.
The annual farm bill, which funds SNAP and a wide range of federal agriculture programs, is scheduled for debate in Congress this spring.
Neither Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., nor Steve Pearce, R-N.M., – both of whom are running for governor of New Mexico in 2018 – endorsed Trump’s proposal when asked about it by the Journal. Lujan Grisham dismissed it entirely.
“The Trump administration’s proposal to cut over $200 billion from the SNAP program and implement a massive, bureaucratic state-run food distribution system would be inefficient, costly and is an assault on the human dignity of beneficiaries who are struggling to make ends meet,” Lujan Grisham said, adding that New Mexico “has one of the highest rates of food insecurity in the country.”
“I fully support SNAP as a vital support system for New Mexicans in need,” Pearce said. “Like many government programs, there is likely room for improvement. I will evaluate the proposed changes, but will not support anything that jeopardizes SNAP’s critical functions.”
SNAP rules require that recipients meet work requirements – to either be working, demonstrably seeking work or in job training – unless they are exempt because of age or disability or another specific reason. Children, seniors and those with disabilities account for almost two-thirds of all SNAP participants. Forty-three percent of SNAP participants live in households with earnings.
“The food boxes are just one of several cuts that there is real reason to be concerned about,” said Sovereign Hager, managing attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.
Hager said her organization is worried about multiple elements of Trump’s SNAP proposal.
She noted that under current law, unemployed healthy people ages 18 to 49 with no children at home are already limited to three months of SNAP benefits in any three-year period unless they meet certain requirements, such as being in a training program.
The proposal would increase that upper age range to 62 beginning in 2021, potentially affecting 2 million more people, primarily older Americans who may have more hardship working or finding work. It would also restrict waivers that states with high unemployment can currently request to help meet the nutrition needs of a broader population than allowed under the normal federal rules.
“This would hurt a state like New Mexico, where we continue to have very high unemployment,” Hager said.
New Mexico’s unemployment rate – at 6 percent in December – is tied with the District of Columbia for second-worst in the nation. Alaska has the highest unemployment rate in the nation, at 7.3 percent.
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the maximum amount of SNAP benefits a family of four can receive is $640 per month, while the average amount a family of four receives is $456. A single person without dependents who qualifies can get a maximum monthly SNAP benefit of $192. On average, SNAP households received about $254 a month in fiscal year 2017. The average SNAP benefit per person was about $126 per month, which works out to about $1.40 per person per meal, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The amount each person or household gets is dependent on multiple factors, including monthly income, as well as allowed deductions such as costs for health and child care, and housing expenses.
Hager said that the SNAP program works well and that it benefits not only recipients but local stores and economies where the benefits are redeemed.
“It’s a really effective anti-hunger program,” she said of the “public-private partnership.”
She said more than 1,600 food retailers in New Mexico redeem SNAP benefits for those who qualify.
“The money generates activity in our state while making sure kids have enough to eat,” Hager said.
Merrill Matthews, a scholar with the Irving, Texas-based Institute for Policy Innovation, a conservative think tank founded by former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey, contends that the president’s approach has merit and should at least be tried as a pilot program in some states.
Matthews noted that about 44 million people participated in SNAP in 2016 (the latest year for which complete numbers are available), at a cost to taxpayers of about $71 billion. The 2016 enrollment was less than the SNAP enrollment peak of 47.6 million in 2013, but was still double its previous peak in 1993 shortly before the Clinton administration and a Republican Congress enacted welfare overhaul.
“One expects the number of food stamp recipients to rise in a recession and decline during a recovery, but the number of SNAP recipients grew steadily throughout the 2000s, even when the economy was doing well,” Matthews said. “Then it exploded during the Obama administration … and has never really returned to its non-recession lows.”
Matthews said the Trump approach could ensure that families are receiving nutritious food – not junk food – and that it would address the frequent complaint of healthy “food deserts” in urban areas without grocery stores that have a range of nutritional options.
“Welfare should be a safety net, not a hammock – otherwise, people who could and should leave may not,” Matthews said. “Trump’s proposal imposes limits on the current program flexibility by meeting recipients’ food needs, not necessarily all of their food wants. It’s a subtle encouragement to leave the program if and when they can.”
Americans can expect hearty debate over food programs for the poor when Congress takes up the farm bill later this year. Elizabeth Wolokomir, a senior policy analyst with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said hunger advocates will be ready for the debate.
“We do expect the farm bill to move and we hope it’s bipartisan,” she said. “Our concern is with the overall tenor of the administration’s plan.”