Pay No Attention to the Facts Behind the Curtain...

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”) has become a major target this election cycle, largely because of persistent accusations of waste and fraud in its administration. However, it is well documented that SNAP fraud is minimal; furthermore, there is a logical disconnect between the problems defined and the expensive solutions proposed in the name of “efficiency."

The Economic Research Service of the USDA just released a new publication on its website documenting the reasons that participation in SNAP has risen so significantly over the past few years. Unsurprisingly, high rates of unemployment since the recession began are largely to blame; ERS research has shown that since 1980, a 1-percentage-point increase in the national unemployment rate is associated with about 1 to 3 million additional SNAP participants. Another factor is that some of the most burdensome policies put in place by welfare reform—which caused the SNAP caseload to decline 47% between 1996 and 2000—have been lifted or eased over the past decade. Additionally, though participation is up, the average SNAP benefit remains low, even with the Recovery Act boost. In 2010, the average 2.2-person SNAP household had a monthly gross income of $731, net income of $336, and a SNAP benefit of $287.

Unfortunately, the public discourse about SNAP, including statements by quite a few politicians, evidences a persistent disregard for facts about the program such as these. Importantly, this discourse both influences public opinion and contributes to the development of non-data-driven reforms to the program. Recent statements by members of Congress that SNAP fraud is “skyrocketing,” when in fact the rate of fraud has been declining consistently since the early nineties, is one of the most frustrating and recurring examples.

And the effects are far-reaching. The rogue lottery winner and the legendary Cadillac-driving SNAP shopper have become not only the dominant popular narrative, but also the basis for policy—just as the racialized myth of the “welfare queen” did twenty-five years ago. At both the local and national levels, policymakers are creating rules that seemingly have much more to do with responding to negative public opinion than ensuring that SNAP effectively serves its target population. In Idaho, where I spent the last five months working on a food stamp outreach project, legislators are literally using the Escalade example to justify such policy recommendations as a ban on junk food purchases and a minimum age requirement to use food stamps at the grocery store.

 In some ways, SNAP asset tests do the same thing—that is, respond primarily to negative public perceptions rather than an actual problem of benefit misuse. The average SNAP household’s assets are only $333, which comes nowhere close to either the federal asset test ($2000) or the more liberal state tests. Neither fraud nor secretly rich SNAP recipients are really very common; furthermore, the actual costs of measures enacted to respond to these perceived problems may very well be a greater expenditure of taxpayer money than any loss incurred by “waste, fraud and abuse.”

Granted, it is important to maintain public and political support for the SNAP program to ensure that it continues to be available to everyone who needs it. Likewise, maintaining efficiency in the administration of the program is a goal everyone can get behind. Recent proposals to fund SNAP through block grants could dramatically reduce the accessibility and responsiveness of the program. But where do you draw the line? And at what point does the focus on “program integrity” do more to reinforce the idea that fraud or abuse is a big problem in SNAP, rather than boost the public’s confidence that the program is being run efficiently? Finally, how do you justify expensive anti-fraud policies in the name of “efficiency”?

I would argue that a first step would be a commitment to more responsible, fact-based statements about SNAP by politicians and those otherwise in positions to influence public opinion. Wishful thinking, I know, but this commitment alone would do more to alleviate negative perceptions of SNAP than any asset test or new anti-fraud provision (my current favorite being the revision of the definition of trafficking to include “abuse of container deposits,” a.k.a. using food stamps to purchase a water bottle, then pouring it out and recycling it for a refund). Universal ideological support for the program may be too much to ask for, but at least avoiding straight lies—the SNAP-sponsored Hawaii vacation example comes to mind—seems like a reasonable request. In response to the now-infamous “food stamp president” comment, Obama recently said:

First of all, I don't put people on food stamps. People become eligible for food stamps. Second of all, the initial expansion of food-stamp eligibility happened under my Republican predecessor, not under me. No. 3, when you have a disastrous economic crash that results in 8 million people losing their jobs, more people are going to need more support from government.

While it’s refreshing to read a straightforward comment about SNAP that doesn’t vilify beneficiaries, these types of rational and informed arguments for backing the program should not be made solely on the defense. It shouldn’t be a political risk to affirmatively support a program that itself supports so many. And that’s a fact.


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.