Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: How House SNAP Cuts Would Make it Harder for Low-Income Workers to Get Ahead

July 10, 2013

By Elizabeth Lower-Basch

Regardless of ideology or political party, Americans overwhelmingly agree that our safety net programs should support low-income workers in their efforts to become self-sufficient – and that these programs should not leave workers worse off when they get a raise or increase their hours.  But few know that the changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) made by the House Agriculture Committee would have done just that by forcing all states to enforce “gross income limits” that cut SNAP recipients off if they earn just a dollar more than the threshold.

Such policies create a “poverty trap” or “cliff effect” that make it harder for workers to get ahead, as explained in this video from the Indiana Institute for Working Families.

The actual SNAP benefit is calculated based on net income, which is income available to the family for food and other basic needs after considering other expenses as child care, child support payments, and very high housing costs.  Families with high overall expenses may reach the gross income limit yet struggle to buy nutritious food and have net income that is still low enough to qualify for benefits.  The gross income limit means that a small raise can push a family just past a threshold, leaving them worse off than before. 

More than half of the states have recognized this cliff effect as contrary to the goal of promoting self-sufficiency, and used an option known as broad-based categorical eligibility to effectively raise the gross income limit under SNAP.  In so doing, these states allow for a more gradual reduction of benefits as income increases.  If the House bill were enacted, it would supersede these states’ policies and create new benefit cliffs, thus cutting nearly 2 million recipients off of SNAP.

 The House rejected the Farm Bill last month due to the deep cuts to the SNAP program, and even more dangerous changes made in floor amendments.   However, the Farm Bill is expected to be brought up again in some modified form.  The bureaucratic dryness of terms like “gross income limit” and “broad based categorical eligibility” should not obscure the seriousness of the cuts that are proposed, and their impact on real families’ lives.  Americans support self-sufficiency and the idea that hard work should help you get ahead, not left behind.

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