Limiting himself to one meal a day, struggling mechanic and food stamp recipient Dustin Rigsby hunts deer and rodents to feed his wife and 1-year-old. Tarnisha Adams got cancer, left her job, and now might have to eat just once a day as she feeds three college-age sons with food stamps.
From the way The New York Times generalized Rigsby’s and Adams’ dire straits in a Sept. 4 food stamps manifesto, most everyone on the program seems the same. And for House Republicans considering cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), ire oozed from the pages through the Times’ selective facts.
SNAP is essential to many lives, and for some inadequate to meet their needs. The average monthly benefit per person is $133. That’s just over $4 per day—not nearly enough for the poorest poor. That meager amount will drop slightly for everyone in November when the 2009 “stimulus” boost expires.
The big question facing Congress: How many still need SNAP? Enrollment was 27.7 million in February 2008 but ballooned to 47.7 million in September 2012, where it has remained steady. The Times implies all 20 million new recipients, a 70 percent increase, still need help. Eligible equals hungry.
Advocates for expanded government programs cite Department of Agriculture studies declaring 49 million Americans live with “food insecurity.” But that sensational number ignores the finer details of those same studies. Nearly 30 million Americans living paycheck-to-paycheck have “low security,” but aren’t hungry. They self-reported “reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet. Little or no indication of reduced food intake.” Rigsby, Adams, and 20 million others missing meals have “very low security.” About 48 percent of SNAP recipients were actually among the food secure in 2012.
If Congress and The New York Times would look past poster children, they could begin to deal with the reality that SNAP is almost laughably inadequate for some—and more than enough for others.
The Times could start by noting proposed cuts wouldn’t affect Rigsby or Adams. Much of the $40 billion in cuts over 10 years—about 5 percent—will likely come from work requirements. But work doesn’t mean actual employment. The unemployed won’t automatically be cut off in a down market. Depending on the situation, doing community service counts as work.
In short, those willing to work shouldn’t be cut off. That might change under the House bill, but the public can’t review bill language yet. The left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities claims up to 4 million will lose SNAP benefits if work waivers for able-bodied recipients without dependents are eliminated. But the Center used employment statistics, which don’t include community service.
Though likely doomed in the Senate, the specifics of the House proposal should come to light in the next few weeks. Republicans should be careful, as some ideas for enforcing SNAP income limits could penalize those with the highest costs of living, not those with the least need. It remains to be seen whether the bill will tolerate states hiring recruiters to press people into the program, which receives little state funding. Florida quotas drove the state’s 130 percent enrollment spike. Alabama encouraged anyone teetering above the safety net to “be a patriot” and take the money. Assessing real need played only a tiny part in emotional enrollment appeals.