Cutting SNAP is the Wrong Way to Fund Defense

Monday, the House Republicans announced new domestic budget cuts to SNAP/Food Stamps, which would include lowering benefit levels and reinstating the federal asset test of $2000 for most families. The Budget Control Act pledged to cut budget deficits by $2.1 trillion between 2012 and 2021, with almost $500 million designated to come from defense. Automatic spending cuts would begin to take place in January—apparently prompting House Republicans to seek sufficient savings from other programs to fund future defense spending without resorting to new taxes. You’re reading that correctly, in order to prevent cuts in defense spending the House GOP has chosen to scale back food support for struggling families. Note the chart here that designates the amount of spending on the Defense budget and the amount of spending on the safety net (of which SNAP is a fraction.)In addition, these new rules will not only hurt millions of families struggling in the wake of the recession, but also impose additional administrative costs on states that are already dealing with their own budgetary shortfalls.

The new cuts would result in an 11% decrease in SNAP benefits beginning in September. Furthermore, the Ryan budget would require states to impose an asset test for SNAP by eliminating the states’ option to use broad-based categorical eligibility. Broad-based categorical eligibility is a policy through which individuals who qualify for a particular service funded through the TANF program are deemed eligible for SNAP as well. The vast majority of states that have implemented this policy have elected to eliminate the asset test for individuals who qualify for SNAP through the receipt of the TANF-funded service. This policy has served to more easily identify and serve individuals who would likely qualify for SNAP under its traditional rules. By making this choice states serve more families in need while simultaneously mitigating administrative costs of determining eligibility. Given the success of the policy, it’s no wonder over forty states have chosen to implement it—many in just the past few years.

Requiring states to reinstate their asset tests would punish struggling families and the unemployed in the wake of a recession. As we’ve written before, asset tests in public assistance programs are barriers to saving and self-sufficiency; they require beneficiaries to remain both income and asset-poor for as long as they receive assistance, thus deterring families from setting aside any money for an emergency or even maintaining a bank account. Ultra-low asset limits are a way for states to hobble the long-term potential of families in need. We need a safety net that helps people bounce back from hard times, not one that traps them in asset poverty.

 Additionally, recent arguments in support of the tighter eligibility rules—in particular, statements that the program is “rapidly expanding” and allowing beneficiaries to use their EBT cards at restaurants—are simply wrong. As shown by these graphs from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the growth in participation in the SNAP program has actually leveled off to where it was before the Recession. Likewise, the assertions about SNAP use at restaurants are accurate only with respect to the very small number of states and cities that have chosen to take part in the Restaurant Meals Program – which itself only serves the elderly, homeless and disabled who are unable to cook or do not have access to a kitchen.

It’s important to note that hunger itself, particularly childhood hunger, has historically been viewed as a national security issue. The National School Lunch Program was created just after World War II, after numerous potential soldiers were rejected from the draft due to malnutrition. Indeed, the National School Lunch Act proclaims: “it is hereby declared to be the policy of Congress, as a measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation's children.” Ironically, the new cuts to SNAP in the name of defense deviate sharply from this principle, replacing the idea that a healthy and nourished population is essential to national security with the glib argument that the safety net, with its average allocation of $1 per person per meal, has become a “hammock.” Hopefully the 50% of SNAP beneficiaries who are children will still have access to school lunch.

The cuts to defense spending as a result of sequestration are significant. But defunding SNAP—one of the most critical and responsive safety net programs, which has kept millions of Americans out of poverty—is not the answer. Now more than ever, programs that help families meet their very basic needs are essential, and their strength should be a shared priority.  


Aleta Sprague is a program fellow with the Family-Centered Social Policy program at New America. Sprague's work focuses on promoting financial inclusion in public assistance programs. She is a member of the California and New York state bars and currently works as a Legal Analyst at the WORLD Policy Analysis Center at UCLA.