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Debunking Myths About Food Stamps

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By Susan Blumenthal, M.D.
Written in collaboration with Sejal Patel

Food insecurity in America is a major public health concern that has increased significantly during the recent economic recession. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, is the federal government's largest food assistance program, providing a vital safety net for low-income people in the U.S. to meet food and nutrition needs. Currently, 1 out of 7 Americans is enrolled in SNAP, 50 percent of whom are children. This $75 billion program aims to alleviate hunger and improve nutrition by increasing the resources available to low-income households and individuals to purchase food.

The upcoming presidential election has put a spotlight on the increase in SNAP enrollment in recent years. Unfortunately, many recently-publicized statements by candidates have misrepresented basic truths about SNAP, causing some damage to the program and unjustly stigmatizing its participants. That's why it's important to debunk these myths before they are further circulated.

(1) Myth: The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and "Food Stamps" are two different programs.

Truth: In 2008, the Federal Food Stamp Program was renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to reflect an increasing focus on nutrition, in addition to addressing hunger in America. Some states still call the program "Food Stamps" or "Food Support" and many have created their own names, such as "CalFresh" (California), 3SquaresVT (Vermont), or FoodShare (Wisconsin).

(2) Myth: The ballooning enrollment and budget for SNAP is costing tax payers too much money and is impeding the government's ability to pay for other important federal programs.

Truth: SNAP benefits are determined on an entitlement basis, which means that anyone who meets SNAP income qualifications can receive assistance. In this way, SNAP responds quickly to support low-income families during times of need. Consequently, enrollment expands during an economic recession and subsides during times of prosperity. SNAP enrollment has increased since 2007 in response to the current economic recession, as the number of low-income households who qualify for the program has increased. Enrollment will decrease as the economy improves.

SNAP provides a critical safety net for individuals, families and our economy as a whole. In fiscal year 2011, the federal government spent about $78 billion on SNAP, which represents approximately 2.11 percent of the $3.7 trillion total budget for the U.S. Furthermore, each dollar spent on SNAP generates $1.84 in economic activity, leading to increased productivity for our nation. In this way, SNAP helps maintain a demand for food and agricultural products, as well as jobs in those sectors, during a lagging economy. According to the Congressional Budget Office, SNAP is one of the most cost-effective of all available spending and tax options for boosting growth and jobs during an economic recession.

(3) Myth: SNAP is an inefficient bureaucracy and its budget is bloated with administrative costs.

Truth: To the contrary, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) praises the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) as a model of government efficiency. About 92 percent of federal spending on SNAP reaches the program's beneficiaries, with the remaining 8 percent covering administrative costs, including eligibility determinations, employment and training, nutrition education for SNAP beneficiaries, and anti-fraud initiatives to assure compliance by the more than 230,000 participating retail outlets.

Additionally, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the rate of administrative errors in SNAP has reached a historical low of 3.81 percent, with more than 98 percent of SNAP beneficiaries meeting stringent eligibility requirements. The annual SNAP payment error rate is often misunderstood. Many believe the error rate reflects federal overpayments or excessive, unnecessary federal spending. In reality, the error rate, which is quite small in SNAP, is a combined rate, including both overpayments and underpayments.

Furthermore, most mistakes are not fraud in the program. States have recently reported that about half the dollar value of overpayments and 90 percent of the dollar value of underpayments resulted from local and state-level administrative errors, and not by any fault of SNAP recipients.

(4) Myth: There is widespread abuse and fraud in SNAP by beneficiaries.

Truth: Due to more than a decade of increased oversight by the USDA, including the introduction of the Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card, fraud in the SNAP program has reached all-time lows.

In 2010, the Government Accountability Office found that "trafficking," a fraudulent activity commonly cited in the media, where SNAP benefits are sold for cash, has decreased from 3.8 cents per dollar of benefits in 1993 to about 1 cent per dollar of benefits -- a significant decline.

While there is always room for improvement, it is a clear exaggeration to suggest that fraud is widespread within SNAP.

(5) Myth: SNAP benefits are issued on a debit card, which can be used to purchase anything -- even paying for travel.

Truth: Food stamps are no longer allocated through paper coupons; instead, they are distributed through an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card, which streamlines administration and reduces stigma. While the EBT card is similar in appearance to a debit card, there are clear restrictions on which items can be purchased with SNAP benefits.

The following categories are strictly prohibited: beer, wine, liquor, cigarettes or tobacco, and any nonfood items, (e.g. pet foods, soaps, paper products, and household supplies), vitamins and medicines, and prepared hot foods. Travel is definitely not supported by SNAP!

While SNAP benefits cannot be used to purchase any nonfood items, the EBT card has been programmed in many states to also include Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits and other cash assistance. Unlike SNAP, such benefits may be used to pay for nonfood expenses, such as diapers, gasoline, heating and utility bills, as well as household items such as toiletries and cleaning products. In some grocery stores, at check out, users simply choose EBT-food (for SNAP) or EBT-cash (for TANF) options at the point of purchase. This has sometimes resulted in misperceptions among observers in grocery and other types of stores, who may misinterpret the nonfood purchases with TANF benefits as a misuse of SNAP benefits.

(6) Myth: SNAP may be used to eat in restaurants.

Truth: The SNAP Restaurant Meal Program is a federal option selected by five states. It allows an exception to the SNAP prohibition on hot, ready-to-eat foods for elderly, disabled and homeless SNAP participants only. In three of the five states, this program is not available statewide but rather offered in specific counties or on a pilot basis. Qualifying restaurants must offer low cost or reduced price meals and meet other SNAP requirements.

(7) Myth: Eligibility requirements are not strict enough -- it's too easy to participate in SNAP.

Truth: SNAP is a means-tested program. Eligibility is determined based on the number of eligible household members, documentation of income and deductions, household composition (elderly, disabled, residency status), and whether the state opted for categorical eligibility with TANF. In about half the states, a household is eligible for SNAP if its income is lower than 130 percent of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) while in states with categorical eligibility, the gross income limits vary from 160 percent to 200 percent FPL.

The SNAP food benefit is based on the market basket cost of the USDA Thrifty Food Plan. For households with no other income, the maximum food benefit for a single person is $200/month and for a family of four, $668/month (October 2010 to September 2011). For a family of four, an allotment of $688/month in SNAP benefits translates to $41.75 per family member per week for food purchases. Since a sliding scale based on income is used to determine benefit amounts, most households receive less than this allotment. In 2010, the average benefit was $133/month per person and $289/month per household. The minimum benefit in a 2-person household is $16/month.

Moreover, only 72 percent of all people who are eligible for SNAP and 60 percent of the working poor actually received them. Eligible individuals who are not enrolled in SNAP may lack awareness of the program, experience difficulty with the application process, and may not understand its eligibility requirements.

While it may seem that SNAP benefits are easy to obtain because so many more individuals are currently enrolled in the program, the high numbers -- 1 in 7 Americans -- reflect the fact that more households are experiencing hardship because of the current economic recession.

(8) Myth: Undocumented immigrants are eligible for SNAP.

Truth: Unauthorized immigrants have never been eligible for SNAP benefits, although the income-eligible citizen children of undocumented immigrants may be eligible. In 2010, foreign-born individuals accounted for approximately 7 percent of SNAP participants, of whom 3 percent are naturalized citizens, 3 percent were legal permanent residents, and about 1 percent were refugees.

Documented immigrants are only eligible for SNAP benefits after living in the U.S. for 5 years. Exemptions to this rule include: refugees, asylees, veterans, and active duty members of the United States Armed Forces, their spouses, and unmarried dependent children.

(9) Myth: People who get SNAP benefits aren't employed and have no incentive to look for work.

Truth: In 2010, more than three times as many SNAP households had members who were employed as compared to those who relied solely on SNAP benefits for food. With high unemployment rates in America today, the number of households on SNAP that also have at least one working family member has steadily increased over the last two decades.

Even though an increasing number of households on SNAP include employed individuals, many still rely on SNAP for long-term assistance. SNAP benefits play a particularly important role for families, providing critical support, especially after their unemployment benefits run out. With less than 10 percent of SNAP beneficiaries also receiving TANF assistance, SNAP provides a vital safety net for low-income families.

(10) Myth: President Obama is the "Food Stamp President," because more people are on SNAP during his administration than any other administration.

Truth: While President Obama has been called the "Food Stamp President" by some of his opponents during this election season, the characterization is inaccurate.

USDA data from January 2001 indicate that during the Administration of President George W. Bush, the number of SNAP recipients rose by 14.7 million people. President Clinton in 1998 and President Bush in 2002 expanded SNAP eligibility as well. During their Administrations, reforms were enacted that permitted for more children, disabled individuals, seniors and some immigrants to receive food stamps.

During President Obama's Administration, enrollment has increased by 14.2 million people -- a lower number than during President Bush's tenure. This is due to the ongoing economic recession, which caused rates of food insecurity in 2009 to reach the highest levels since 1998. There is some indication that SNAP enrollment levels and rates of food insecurity are beginning to decrease. In October 2011, when the economy started to improve, SNAP enrollment declined by 43,528 individuals and from 2009 to 2010, food insecurity dropped from 21.3 percent to 20.2 percent in households with children.

Therefore, while it is true that current SNAP enrollment is at a historical high with more than 46 million people in the program, it is incorrect to characterize President Obama as the "Food Stamp President." Instead, the current increased enrollment reflects the high unemployment rates during the current economic recession, the temporary increase in eligibility for families, and the countercyclical design of the program. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (The Stimulus Act) did expand eligibility for SNAP by removing a three-month time limit on food stamp participation for unemployed adults without children. However, this change was meant to last only during the years 2009 and 2010. Nonetheless, 46 states have obtained special waivers to sustain the new rule because of high unemployment rates. The stimulus legislation also increased average benefit amounts for all program participants; however, this increase will expire in 2013.

(11) Myth: Many states are making efforts to enroll people who are eligible for SNAP, but choose not to participate. These people don't seem to want government assistance, so why should the government go out of its way to enroll them?

Truth: National opinion surveys conducted by the USDA have found that only 17 percent of eligible non-participating households do not participate in SNAP because they do not want the help. The majority of non-participating households are either unaware of their eligibility for SNAP or experience other barriers such as the time needed to enroll or transportation issues. In fact, 69 percent of survey-takers said that they would apply for SNAP if they knew that they were eligible.

Summary:

Food insecurity is very prevalent in the U.S., impacting nearly one out of six Americans with detrimental health and economic effects. The USDA Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is designed to help meet the dietary needs of the lowest income Americans. Currently, more than 46 million people participate, of whom nearly 50 percent are children.

The bottom line: SNAP has had a critical and beneficial impact on the ability of low-income participants to purchase food, thus helping to reduce food insecurity and hunger in the U.S. during this and prior economic recessions.

As President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, "The test of our progress (as a nation) is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."

For more information, visit SNAPtohealth.org.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this piece stated SNAP is a $75 million program. SNAP is a $75 billion program.

Rear Admiral Susan Blumenthal, M.D., M.P.A. (ret.) is the Public Health Editor of the Huffington Post. She is also the Director of the Health and Medicine Program at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress in Washington, D.C., a Clinical Professor at Georgetown and Tufts University Schools of Medicine, and Chair of the Global Health Program at the Meridian International Center.

Dr. Blumenthal served for more than 20 years in senior health leadership positions in the Federal government in the Administrations of four U.S. Presidents, including as Assistant Surgeon General of the United States, the first Deputy Assistant Secretary of Women's Health, as a White House Advisor on Health, as Chief of the Behavioral Medicine and Basic Prevention Research Branch and as Chair of the Health and Behavior Coordinating Committee at the National Institutes of Health. Admiral Blumenthal has received numerous awards including honorary doctorates and has been decorated with the highest medals of the US Public Health Service for her pioneering leadership and significant contributions to advancing health in the United States and worldwide. Named by the New York Times, the National Library of Medicine and the Medical Herald as one of the most influential women in medicine, Dr. Blumenthal is the recipient of the 2009 Health Leader of the Year Award from the Commissioned Officers Association and was named a 2010 Rock Star of Science by GQ magazine and the Geoffrey Beene Foundation. To learn more about Susan Blumenthal, M.D., visit 4globalhealth.org

Sejal Patel, a recent graduate of Columbia University, serves as a Health Policy Fellow at the Center for the Study of Presidency and Congress in Washington D.C and will be a first year medical student this Fall.

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[2]Vilsack, Thomas. United States Department of Agriculture. Performance and Accountability. 2009.

[3] Rosenbaum, Dottle. "SNAP is Effective and Efficient." . Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, February 2012. .

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[5] Blumgart, Jake. "4 Absurd, Damaging Right-Wing Lies About Food Stamps." . AlterNet, November 2011. .

[6] Rosenbaum, Dottle. "SNAP is Effective and Efficient." . Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, February 2012. .

[7] Blumgart, Jake. "4 Absurd, Damaging Right-Wing Lies About Food Stamps." . AlterNet, November 2011. .

[8] United States Department of Agriculture. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program: Eligible Food Items. 2011..

[9] "A Quick Guide to SNAP Eligibility and Benefits." Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, January 2012. .

[10] United States Department of Agriculture. Benefits of Increasing The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Participation In Your State. December 2011.

[11] United States Department of Agriculture. SNAP Policy on Immigrants and Access Issues. Food and Nutrition Service, June 2011.

[12] "Policy Basics: Introduction to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)." Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, February 2012. .

[13] Leftin, J., Eslami, E. & Strayer, M. (2011). Trends in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Participation Rates: Fiscal Year 2002 to Fiscal Year 2009. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service.

[14] Smith, Matt. "Gingrich half-off on food stamps." CNN Politics. .

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[17] Katel, Peter. "Are "safety nets" working?." The CQ Researcher Blog. N.p., July 2009..

[18] Bartlett, S. & Burnstein, L. 2004. "Food Stamp Program Access Study: Eligible Nonparticipants" Economic Research Service (USDA). http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/efan03013/efan03013-2/efan03013-2c.pdf

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