In Focus: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

Jul 22, 2016  |  PERMALINK »

SNAP proposals to ban “junk food” ignore realities of food insecurity

By Nune Phillips

In June, Maine Governor Paul LePage made headlines by threatening to end his state’s participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps). LePage said he’d withdraw from the program unless Maine was permitted to ban SNAP recipients from using their benefits for “junk” food. According to participation data released by the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), nearly 190,000 Maine residents currently receive SNAP. Governor LePage’s irresponsible threat to suspend the program would severely worsen food insecurity for these families and individuals.

Many low-income families struggle to afford healthy food, but denying them SNAP benefits would only exacerbate this problem. Healthy food is more costly than low-nutrition options, leaving low-income families struggling to afford quality meals. The average SNAP benefit for a household is just $254, an amount that many of us would find challenging to stretch over a month. Cutting off benefits would turn a significant problem into a major crisis.

In 2013, the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) released a report on strengthening SNAP’s role in improving nutrition and food security. More recently, the Urban Institute addressed common misconceptions about the food choices of SNAP beneficiaries, while the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) explained how increasing SNAP benefits can improve the diets of low-income households.

There are many evidence-based strategies to improve nutrition among low-income and SNAP households:

  • Increasing SNAP participation decreases the number of food-insecure households, allowing families and individuals to better afford healthy meals.
  • Increasing monthly SNAP allotments provides households the purchasing power to make healthy food choices. A recent study found that an additional $30 per month can significantly improve consumption of vegetables and other healthy foods.  
  • Promoting fruit and vegetable purchases with incentives and money-back offers increases consumption, as evidenced by local programs that allow SNAP households to get more for their SNAP dollars at grocery stores and to use their benefits at farmer’s markets.
  • Enhancing nutrition education and healthy food practices in local communities benefits SNAP recipients, low-income households, and the community at large. As FRAC highlights, a California study found that local education improved attitudes, knowledge, and behavior, resulting in increased fruit and vegetable consumption.

Proposals like Maine’s are grounded in false stereotypes that SNAP recipients prefer to purchase junk food over healthier options. However, a study completed by the USDA indicates that—while SNAP recipients are more likely to be obese than other low-income households as well as higher-income households—SNAP recipients are less likely to consume sweets, desserts, and salty snacks than higher-income individuals. Further, their diets overall are only slightly less healthy than that of all Americans, based on the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion dietary guidelines.

LePage’s proposal is only the latest attempt to restrict how SNAP benefits can be used. While the governor has proposed to eliminate “junk food” (mentioning candy and soda specifically), proposals in New York and Missouri have tried to limit access to steak, seafood, and other foods categorized as “luxury.”

If we are truly concerned about the health and wellness of SNAP recipients and low-income families, we should consider the evidence rather than stigmatizing them. We know what works. There are practical solutions that will allow SNAP recipients and low-income households to make healthy food choices for themselves and their families. 

Jul 1, 2016  |  PERMALINK »

State Efforts Can Improve Access to Key Work Supports

By Carrie Welton

New evidence out this week shows that states can make dramatic improvements in the delivery of key work supports to low-income families, including nutrition assistance under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), health insurance under Medicaid, and child care subsidies.  New Urban Institute reports show that a number of states that participated in the Work Support Strategies (WSS) initiative—a foundation-funded, multi-state effort—substantially increased joint enrollment in SNAP and Medicaid and sped up service, with the share of families whose SNAP applications are processed on the same day nearly tripling in some states.

Improvements in access to these work support programs matter for families’ success.  Research shows that getting and keeping the full package of work supports can stabilize family circumstances, improve steady work and income, and enhance children’s environments for eligible working families. However, many families, particularly those who may need multiple benefits, do not receive the full package of work supports for which they are eligible—for reasons that can include confusing processes, repetitive paperwork requirements, and understaffed state offices.  WSS, led by CLASP in partnership with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Urban Institute, provided funding, high-quality technical assistance, and peer support to six states—CO, ID, IL, NC, RI, and SC—committed to integrating and streamlining their approach so that eligible low-income working families would get and keep the full package of work support benefits.  This week’s two reports from the Urban Institute, which is evaluating the WSS effort, provided the first data that give a quantitative sense of progress over the course of the WSS initiative on the key dimensions of speed and joint participation.  The reports also include new and updated information about the specific reforms states implemented, the challenges they faced, and the strategies they used to overcome challenges. 

A key finding is that most states were successful in providing faster service and improved access to the combined package of SNAP and Medicaid/CHIP, although they encountered many challenges along the way.  The findings show that five states increased the share of individuals eligible for both SNAP and public health insurance who actually received both—referred to as  joint participation rates—from 2011-2013, with some of the greatest gains going to children. During this period South Carolina increased enrollment in both programs from 80 percent to 92 percent for children while Colorado increased its overall joint participation among children from 77 percent to 90 percent, as well as among adults from 65 percent to 81 percent.  (Data from the post -Affordable Care Act period is not yet available).

States were also able to reduce the delay between when people applied for benefits and when they received an answer and could start to receive benefits, resulting in an improvement overall in meeting the needs of applicants. One particularly impressive measure was the increase in the share of applicants whose benefit determination was made the same day they applied—often while they were still in the office.  Four of the six states tracked this measure and saw gains, in some cases quite significant. For example, Rhode Island increased same-day SNAP processing from 10 percent in 2011 to 30 percent in 2015, and Colorado more than doubled, from 15 percent in winter 2013 to 32 percent in summer 2015.

Some states were also able to reduce churn, or the loss of supports due to procedural issues while a family is still eligible.  Churn is burdensome to recipients because it reduces their ability to meet their families' needs, and also increases state costs, as a new application generally requires more staff time to process than a redetermination.  For example, by using data that it already had from other programs, Idaho was able to virtually eliminate procedural churn from Medicaid.

Each of the six WSS states—CO, ID, IL, NC, RI, and SC—strived to increase participation and retention in SNAP and Medicaid by streamlining service delivery, and by improving business practices and administrative efficiency. These efforts were designed to reduce barriers to support programs and to strengthen working families. Though all six states were able to illustrate some progress toward these goals there was wide variation in the results, and some states may have lost ground, at least temporarily, when they rolled out new systems. The WSS initiative has operated during a time marked by an increase in demand for benefits driven by the Great Recession, constrained state budgets, and the new Medicaid eligibility rules required by the Affordable Care Act.

The evaluation also included client surveys in three states.  Clients who experienced shorter wait times in offices or on the phone reported more positive experiences overall. In addition, they identified shorter waits and faster benefit delivery as the potential customer service improvements most important to them, and overall more positive experiences. Additionally, over half of respondents in each of the three states said they experienced emergencies or problems—like job loss, homelessness, or food shortages—while applying for or redetermining eligibility for benefits. More than half said these problems could have been avoided or mitigated if they had received benefits sooner.

To achieve progress toward their goals the WSS states implemented changes across technology, policy, and business processes. All six states either updated existing technology or implemented new technology to improve cross-program integration across departments, monitor service delivery, and reduce the number of trips applicants had to make to the office. States made policy changes that included eliminating requirements that exceeded federal law, aligning benefit determination so families could renew for two or more programs at the same time, and utilizing electronic data to autoenroll SNAP recipients in Medicaid. Finally, states upgraded business processes that ranged from the initial greeting of the customer to the elimination of back-end workflows that resulted in inefficiencies. Several states also implemented an integrated intake process for customers that resulted in workers being able to process applications for multiple programs, referred to as a “no wrong door” policy.

The evaluation reports  highlight what is possible when states commit to change and to improving the lives of their citizens. Drawing on the WSS experience, CLASP has issued a report that summarizes twelve lessons learned on  ways to streamline and integrate processes, reduce administrative costs, foster collaboration between agencies and programs, and ensure families get and keep the work supports for which they are eligible. We encourage other states to utilize the valuable insight WSS has provided to improve upon their technology, policy, and businesses practices.


Jun 7, 2016  |  PERMALINK »

Strengthening the Social Safety Net: Building on What Works—and Avoiding Bad Ideas


Today, U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) acknowledged the effects of poverty on too many Americans yet offered the wrong solutions. Instead of building on what works—such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), expanded Head Start and child care subsidies, and nutritional assistance—the policy paper released this morning by Speaker Ryan offered the same tired answers of consolidations, cuts, waivers, and participation requirements that have been shown to undermine the effectiveness of key income and work support programs.

Building on what works

The safety net works to reduce poverty, improve families’ wellbeing, and—according to strong emerging evidence—improve the long-term life chances of children who benefit from key programs. In 2014, the U.S. Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) shows that refundable credits, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit, reduced overall poverty (as measured by the SPM) by 3.1 percentage points and child poverty by a remarkable 7.1 percentage points. Similarly, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits reduced overall poverty by 1.5 percentage points and child poverty by 2.8 percent. Researchers at Columbia University who used similar methods to analyze the effect of these key programs found that in 2012, the most recent year with available data, government tax and transfer policies reduced the share of people who are poor by almost half, from 29 percent to 16 percent. By contrast, in 1967, tax and transfer programs reduced poverty by just 1 percentage point, from 27 percent to 26 percent.

Recent rigorous studies of both SNAP and public health insurance have demonstrated the positive effects of access as a child to these safety net programs on life outcomes into adulthood. Having access to SNAP in early childhood improves adult outcomes including health and economic self-sufficiency. Expanding health insurance coverage for low-income children has large effects on high school completion, college attendance, and college completion.

At a Center for American Progress event this morning, U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) called for an expansion of the EITC for adults without minor children and recommended that recipients be able to access a portion of their benefits in advance (rather than waiting on an annual income tax refund), in order to meet urgent needs and avoid high-cost payday loans. Working childless adults are the only group taxed into poverty. Young adults ages 18 to 24—who have the highest joblessness rate in the country—are completely ineligible for the EITC if they don't have children; those young adults who are working have higher poverty rates than the overall population and would significantly benefit from an expansion of refundable tax credits. Mr. Ryan has previously supported an EITC expansion to bolster the earnings of these low-income workers, but there is no mention of such an expansion in today’s proposal.

Avoiding what doesn't work

The proposal explicitly uses the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant as a model to be replicated to other public assistance programs operating at the federal level—even though the history of TANF shows vividly why block grant programs don’t work. The value of the TANF block grant has fallen by 33 percent over the last 20 years, leaving fewer than 1 in 5 poor children with any help at all from the program (and fewer than 1 in 10 in 17 states). And unlike the core safety net programs like Medicaid and SNAP that provided more help to states, families, and communities when revenues shrank and need rose during the Great Recession, TANF barely responded at all because of its capped resources —failing states and families when they needed help the most. The block grant has also given states so much flexibility in the use of federal and state expenditures that basic monthly assistance accounts for only 27 percent of spending under TANF (and work programs for only 8 percent); instead program funds have been used to plug holes in state budgets or to support other social programs that may vaguely meet one of the core statutory purposes of TANF.

The proposal also doubles down on work mandates—for example, in housing assistance programs—even though work requirements without strong public investment in jobs and training typically serve only to cut poor individuals off from help they need, rather than helping them get jobs. These so-called requirements also ignore the evidence that most poor families are already working—what they need most is stability in their lives (including a stable place to live, health care, and child care) and the opportunity to move up at work. Far from being an example of success, the provisions governing work in TANF fly in the face of research evidence about what helps families succeed at work. For example, TANF's work participation rate requirement limits the type of countable work-related activities, making it challenging for those participants with severe barriers to employment—such as a physical or mental disability, very low educational attainment, or persons with criminal records—to fully engage in activities mandated by the work requirement. States are rewarded for cutting such families off of assistance, which has led to an increase in deep poverty. By contrast, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) of 2014, which Congress passed in a nearly unanimous bipartisan vote, emphasizes effective skills training leading to postsecondary credentials that employers recognize as having value in the labor market, which research has found to be “the most important determinant of differences in workers’ lifetime earnings and incomes.”

Another example of the bad ideas in this proposal is one that builds on ill-advised provisions of the House child nutrition reauthorization bill, which would shrink coverage of the very successful community eligibility provision and inappropriately increase verification paperwork for families, creating additional barriers for low-income children who need access to free or reduced price meals in order to succeed at school. The House bill also includes a three-state block grant proposal that would immediately cut the funding to operate the school nutrition programs in those states, and cap funding thereafter. With each year, the programs’ ability to serve low-income children will erode even further and states will be unable to respond to any increase in need arising from a recession or population growth.

And the paper’s claim that anti-poverty programs can be dramatically improved—including the elimination of "cliff effects" resulting from the loss of benefits as earnings increase—with no additional spending, while appealing, is just not true. The reality is that many key elements of economic security—child care, housing, transportation, and education—are unaffordable for low-wage workers even when they are able to find steady employment. No amount of state flexibility or coordination will substitute for adequate funding for these essentials.

Bold new ideas

But reducing poverty requires more than just avoiding bad ideas. As CLASP Executive Director Olivia Golden testified before the House Ways and Means Committee two weeks ago:

“Congress should avoid bad ideas that demonstrably don’t work—such as block grants, misguided requirements, and cuts in key programs—and should seize opportunities that build on research and experience. These include expanded access to child care for all low-income parents, investment in effective workforce development programs and career opportunities, financial access to postsecondary education and completion for today’s low-income students, crucial fixes to the work support system for adults and families, and basic standards for fairness at work, including raising the minimum wage. Many of these solutions would also benefit middle-income Americans who struggle with some of the same problems that hold back parents, workers, and students living in poverty—such as the high cost of child care and of postsecondary education, the need to develop new skills, and the lack of paid leave and fair, predictable work schedules.”

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Additional CLASP resources on related topics are linked below:

TANF 101” Policy Brief Series

Social Impact Bonds: Overview and Considerations

Does Head Start Work? Wrong Question

Child Care Assistance Spending and Participation in 2014

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