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The Equity Factor

Aw, SNAP: House Repubs Go After Food Assistance for Working Poor

A Republican bill that passed in the House could cut SNAP benefits for roughly 3.8 million people.

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The House passed a Republican-backed bill on Thursday that calls for drastic cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP and formerly known as food stamps. And not cuts set to go into place on November 1, but additional cuts. The 217-210 vote largely split along party lines, with 15 Republicans voting against the bill.

The cuts would save $39 billion over 10 years, most of which would come in the next two years. Roughly 3.8 million people could lose the benefits in 2014, and an additional 850,000 households would lose an average of $90 each month. SNAP helped almost 47 million Americans in 2012. About 72 percent of recipients are families with children. And more than 91 percent of SNAP benefits go to households with incomes below the poverty line.

“It’s a sad day in the people’s House when the leadership brings to the floor one of the most heartless bills I have ever seen,” Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.) said. “It’s terrible policy trapped in a terrible process.”

So why do conservative lawmakers want to cut one of the country’s most effective safety nets, outside of unemployment insurance, during a slow economic rebound from recession?

“This bill not only restores the integrity of this safety-net program, it will help beneficiaries become more self-sufficient,” read a memo from House Republican Whip Kevin McCarthy. I suppose McCarthy and his allies want the working poor to be more cost-conscious in the dairy aisle?

It’s not entirely clear how the cuts will help beneficiaries become more self-sufficient, given that 58 percent of SNAP households are employed while receiving benefits and 82 percent are employed within a year. SNAP isn’t necessarily for unemployed people, like many cynics think. (And it’s certainly not all surfer dudes buying lobster, like Fox News would like you to think.)

Wages, even those above the federally mandated $7.25-per-hour minimum, simply don’t pay enough to put food on the table. Just two weeks ago the Agriculture Department found that 17.6 million households did not have enough to eat at some point in 2012 due to insufficient funds.

And the benefits do their job. As the chart to the right shows, SNAP boosts the monthly income by 12 percent for a family of three working 40 hours per week at $10 an hour.

“SNAP is one of our most important anti-poverty programs in the United States,” said Parke Wilde, an associate professor in the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. “It’s not just about food. When you ask about the effect on cities, it’s not just about food retail, but about poverty in general. SNAP lifts a substantial number of people out of poverty.”

Obviously, those who have their benefits slashed will take the biggest hit. But retailers and farmers will lose business, too. Supermarkets may not close, but the cuts will be a strain, especially in cities with concentrated levels of poverty. “The pain for the local retail market, especially in cities, could be substantial,” Wilde said.

Furthermore, SNAP is an effective program that wastes little: 92 percent of SNAP spending goes into the pockets of recipients. There’s relatively little pork.

President Obama has threatened to veto the bill and it has very little chance of passing in Senate. Still, this is partisan-politics-as-class-warfare at its worst.

The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

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Bill Bradley is a writer and reporter living in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in Deadspin, GQ, and Vanity Fair, among others.

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Tags: washington dcpovertyequity factorsocial servicesgrocery stores

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