In Focus: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

Mar 25, 2016  |  PERMALINK »

House Budget Seeks Cuts and Changes to Low Income Programs that Work

By Helly Lee

Last week, the House Budget Committee released their proposed budget plan for federal fiscal year 2017. It aims to reduce the national deficit by $7 trillion over the next 10 years through a combination of spending cuts ($6.5 trillion) and projected economic growth, while bringing in no new revenue. The budget proposes an $877 billion cut in federal non-defense discretionary (NDD) spending over the next decade. It would accomplish this by freezing NDD at $472 billion over the next nine years—significantly lower than the $516 billion FY 2017 cap set by last year’s Bipartisan Budget Agreement (BBA). The budget also calls for billions of dollars of cuts to mandatory programs, with the deepest cuts to programs affecting low-income families.

Under the proposed budget plan, legislators seek to balance the budget on the backs of low-income Americans by cutting into critical programs that actually work to address poverty such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC). CBPP reports that the House Budget Committee-approved plan would cut SNAP by more than $150 billion over the next ten years, ending food assistance for millions of low-income families. In addition, it seeks to block grant  SNAP, not only scaling back eligibility and reducing benefits, but also taking away the flexibility of the program to respond to the needs of families by expanding during times of economic downturn, and retracting as the economy recovers.

Some of the cuts included in the House Budget are already being moved as independent bills; the House Ways and Means Committee has cleared  H.R. 4722, which requires tax payers to use social security numbers when they claim the refundable portion of the CTC. This is yet another attempt to bring up a policy that would harm up to 4.5 million U.S. citizen children.  Under current law, low-wage, working parents who file taxes with an Individual Tax ID Number (ITIN) rather than a Social Security number, qualify for the CTC. Proponents claim that restricting CTC to only those who file with a Social Security number prevents fraud, but that claim is misguided. It would actually deny the benefits of the CTC to eligible, low-income working immigrant families, the vast majority of whom have U.S. citizen children. Other bills that have passed House committees would eliminate the Social Services Block Grant, and slash support for Medicaid and CHIP.

Both SNAP and the CTC, along with other critical safety net programs work to help low-income families make ends meet and lift millions of families out of poverty. Instead of proposing deep cuts and drastic changes to them, Congress should be working to protect and strengthen these programs.

Mar 10, 2016  |  PERMALINK »

CLASP Comments on SNAP Photo EBT Proposed Rules

By Helly Lee

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, often referred to as food stamps) is a critical nutrition program for millions of low-income families and has one of the lowest rates for error and fraud. However, when states opt to require photos on SNAP Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards, often under the premise of program integrity, it creates additional barriers to nutrition access. For many, the barriers exist in numerous aspects of having to obtain and use a photo EBT card. For example, if individuals are required to go into a state agency to take a photo for the card, they may have to take time off of work to do so, especially if office hours are during the work day. For those without reliable transportation or who live in areas far from where they need to go to take a photo for their EBT card, simply getting to an office to comply with the requirements poses significant barriers.

Obstacles can also arise on the retailer side. Even with photo EBT cards, household members and other caregivers who are not pictured are allowed to use the card to make food purchases. This can cause confusion among retailers who assume that the card can only be used by the person whose picture is on the card. Research has shown that implementing photo EBT cards is costly and does not deter fraud, however, a handful of states have or are considering the option. 

To establish procedures on implementing photo EBT cards, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) published a notice of proposed rulemaking for comment early this year. In the notice, FNS acknowledged that “recent state implementation of the photo EBT card option revealed significant legal and operational complexities and challenges associated with having a photo on the card,” and that guidance is necessary to clarify what states need to do in order to implement the photo EBT option. CLASP, which submitted comments in response to the proposed rules, has long opposed the implementation of photo EBT cards because of the barriers it creates for participants. However, we support the efforts of FNS to create strong guidance for states that chose this option to limit the complications and barriers that SNAP participants may face in those states. Specifically, CLASP provided comments on:

  • Ensuring that states choosing to implement photo EBT cards must continue to meet performance metrics even after implementation, meaning that states should continue to provide timely, accurate, and fair service to SNAP participants.
  • Ensuring that states address how they will reach individuals who already face barriers to access, including those whose primary language is not English, individuals with disabilities, elderly individuals, and people who are experiencing homelessness.
  • Demonstrating that states have sufficient capacity to issue photo EBT cards before they receive authorization from FNS to implement the photo EBT option.
  • Establishing a process to address the needs of those who cannot reach a state office due to a hardship condition, or because they are not within reasonable travel distance of an office.
  • Ensuring that states make every effort to make certain that all members of a household or authorized representatives of a household are able to use the photo EBT cards with a valid PIN, even if their photo is not on the card.
  • Including in their implementation plans, the state’s efforts to make mechanisms to handle complaint calls and questions from clients, retailers and external stakeholders available to English Language Learners, individuals with disabilities, elderly individuals, and others who may need additional assistance.

Mar 2, 2016  |  PERMALINK »

Kansas Time Limit on SNAP: Are People Really Better Off?

By Helly Lee

Work is important to helping lift people out of poverty—there’s no dispute about that.  However, the claims in a recent Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA) report that individuals in Kansas were “freed from welfare” after they were subject to a time limit in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps, are about as real as the stock photos and pseudonyms used to portray success stories in the report. Let’s break it down.

In SNAP, low-income adults ages 18-49 who do not have a mental or physical disability that would prevent them from working, do not live in households with children, or are not otherwise exempt (sometimes known as Able Bodied Adults Without Dependents (ABAWDs), are subject to a three-month time limit on SNAP receipt.  Months when individuals are working at least 20 hours a week or are participating in a qualified employment or training program do not count toward this limit. Individuals who are subject to this time limit are diverse, with many cycling in and out of employment, while others have significant barriers to employment, such as limited education and skills, or learning disabilities.  What they have in common is deep poverty – among those who are not working at least 20 hours per week, their average annual income is just about $2,000 per year.

When states have high unemployment rates, they may be eligible for a waiver of the time limit, meaning that individuals are not automatically cut off if they are not in an employment or training activity, or are not working the required hours. During the recent recession, most states received state-wide waivers. As unemployment rates begin to decline, most states are no longer eligible for the waivers, but still can waive the time limit in areas of high unemployment. Some states, such as Kansas, have chosen to forgo the waiver even in areas where they would still qualify.

In 2013, Kansas re-implemented its time limit on SNAP throughout the state. The FGA report claims that nearly 60 percent of the 13,000 individuals affected “found employment within the first 12 months of being cut off and their incomes rose by an average of 127 percent.”  The report implies that this is because of the time limit. The reality is that many people turn to SNAP during brief periods of unemployment or under-employment, and would likely soon find work in any case. Across states, at least a quarter of households with childless adults work while receiving SNAP, and about 75 percent work in the year before or the year after receiving SNAP

What was even better, claims the report, was that “the average income among working able-bodied adults is now above the poverty line.” If that sounds too good to be true, that’s because it isn’t the entire picture. According to the report, incomes among those who exited SNAP in December 2013 due to the time limit and were still working a year later averaged just $3,326 in the last three months of 2014. The average quarterly wages of all individuals who were subject to the time limit and cut off of SNAP in December 2013 was a mere $1,390 a year later. Of those who found jobs, 51 percent remained below the poverty line and 30 percent remained in “severe poverty.” While some were able to find employment, many continued to struggle without employment or training opportunities, and with low wages.

Most people receiving SNAP want to work, and many already are working but in low-wage jobs. People want jobs that will provide a living wage that not just brings them above the poverty line, but allows them to thrive. Cutting people off of critical work supports, such as SNAP, is not the long-term solution needed to lift people out of poverty and support their success in the workforce. Losing a critical work support such as SNAP can exacerbate the struggles individuals who face the time limit are already experiencing and can make it harder to get back in the workforce, especially if states are not committed to providing employment and training opportunities. Our policymakers need to do more. For people subject to the time limit, states need to commit to offering quality employment and training programs that will help them access living wage jobs and truly be able to thrive in work and life.

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