A battle is about to begin on Capitol Hill over federal food assistance, with Republicans seeking to dramatically overhaul the program and Democrats promising to oppose big changes. Both sides are less willing to talk about one thing, though: The number of Americans seeking food aid has been dropping and likely will continue to do so.
President Donald Trump’s proposed fiscal 2019 budget aims for more than $213 billion in savings from food aid over the next 10 years by replacing half of recipients’ benefits with a package of U.S. grown and produced food, along with stricter work requirements for recipients in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
“This proposal is cost-effective, enhances the integrity of SNAP, and provides for states’ flexibility in administration of the program,” the USDA said in a fact sheet detailing the food box idea, which it said would comprise $129 billion of the administration’s proposed $213 billion in cuts.
The idea has drawn skepticism among Democrats and anti-hunger advocates.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), the ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, told reporters Feb. 13. “It’s a crazy proposal; it’ll add tremendous administrative costs and I don’t know anyone who supports it in the food industry.”
The proposal, which caught many policy advocates by surprise, would mark a huge change for a program whose growth during the Obama administration was seen by many Republicans as proof Democratic economic policies weren’t working.
Recent data, though, show a continued downward trend in SNAP enrollment since it peaked at slightly less than 48 million recipients a month in fiscal year 2013, falling to a little over 42 million a month in 2017.
The Agriculture Department’s state-by-state data on SNAP shows enrollment, when counted by households, also has declined more than 4 percent from October 2016 to October 2017.
The drop has also been widespread. Of the 50 states plus Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia, only eight had seen an increase in participating households in that time span, while 43 states saw decreases. The District of Columbia and North Dakota saw enrollment close to flat.
Of those nine states and territories with increases, two—Florida and Texas—were affected by hurricanes Irma and Maria. Excluding them, Alaska had the biggest gain in recipients from October 2016 to October 2017, rising 37 percent with more than 11,000 added households. North Carolina had the biggest drop in enrollment during that time frame with over 158,000 fewer households—a 19 percent decrease.
Despite ebbing enrollment, leading Republican farm policy lawmakers say they still intend to make major changes to SNAP.
When asked about the drop and whether it meant no changes were needed, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) told Bloomberg Government Feb. 14: “No, it’s declining because people are getting jobs.”
“Reforms we’re making should be there whether there are jobs or not,” said Conaway . “Reforms are still necessary and they will move forward.”
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) also told Bloomberg Government Feb. 8 enrollment was down because of a strong economy, but he said he still wanted to make changes.
Roberts said he thinks “there will be more targeting for those who really need it” when it comes to changes to SNAP in the next farm bill lawmakers hope to negotiate soon. The current farm bill is set to expire Sept. 30.
Roberts said one provision to SNAP that needs to end is bonus incentives, which are given to states when more people are signing up for SNAP. A 2013 USDA inspector general audit report looking at eight states found inaccurately reported SNAP approval error rates after the states hired third-party consultants to validate their error-rate data.
As a result of the lower reported error rates, the states received bonuses to which the IG said they were not entitled.
“Most notably, a number of states had hired third party consultants who actively worked to eliminate errors and therefore improve the State’s error rate,” said Gil Harden, assistant inspector general for audit, in his testimony in front of the Senate Agriculture Committee in September.
Stabenow said she did not want to make changes that would weaken either the food aid program or farm support programs that have traditionally been tied together in the farm bill. Stabenow has noted in the past SNAP already has some work requirements.
“We have a family safety net and a farmer safety net and they both need to be strong,” she said. “We’ll see what happens but I’m certainly not going to support anything that take us backwards on either of those.”
Also at issue is whether the food box idea would produce the savings claimed by the Trump administration.
Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, told Bloomberg Government the administration isn’t showing the large administrative costs associated with the change.
“I think there’s a real issue about hiding the cost associated with expanded bureaucracy and distribution,” said Dean.
White House Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney endorsed the proposal during a briefing at the White House Feb. 12, calling it a “tremendous idea.”
“It lowers the cost to us because we can buy prices at wholesale, whereas they have to buy it at retail,” said Mulvaney. “It also makes sure that they’re getting nutritious food, so we’re pretty excited about that.”
Dean said the proposed plan is unclear in how it will distribute to every single recipient household and would be bad for small businesses who depend on SNAP recipients to buy their products.
“Don’t be distracted by the shiny object,” said Dean, adding a “fiscal agenda targeted at the safety net is the real worry.”
“You cannot achieve cuts of 30 percent without terminating people from the program and that’s what this budget would do,” she said.
—With assistance from Madi Alexander
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