12/11/2012 09:55 am ET Updated Feb 10, 2013

Congress: Do No Harm to SNAP

From the day I entered medicine, I was taught a simple rule: first, do no harm. As debate continues on a compromise for the next Farm Bill, the vast majority of which authorizes funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Congress should heed that advice.

More than 47 million Americans currently receive SNAP benefits -- by far the largest number in the program's 50-year history. At a time when family economic challenges remain significant and the threat of the fiscal cliff looms large, critics contend that SNAP is an unsustainable entitlement. Many have said the question facing Congress at the moment is not whether to cut SNAP, but -- rather -- by how much. The respective Farm Bills passed by the Senate and the House Agriculture Committee would slice billions from the program over the next decade and sharply curtail eligibility.

Cutting SNAP is precisely the wrong prescription for our children and the nation's economic recovery. The notion that SNAP benefits are an overly generous handout could not be further from the truth. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the average monthly benefit in FY2011 was $133.85 per person, or less than $5 a day. Yet, overall, those funds have a profound effect on the economy. Economists have found that SNAP is one of the most effective forms of economic stimulus, especially in a weak economy. According to Moody Analytics, every dollar increase in SNAP benefits generates $1.72 in economic activity.

In addition to the economic consequences, cutting SNAP also would undermine the health of children and families. Nearly half of SNAP's beneficiaries are children. The proposed cuts to SNAP in the House Agriculture Committee bill would cause 2 to 3 million people to lose their food assistance entirely, with nearly 300,000 children slated to lose access to free school meals. This would be a huge setback in the fight against both childhood obesity and hunger. Nearly a third of our nation's children and teens are overweight or obese, and youths from lower-income families are disproportionately affected. They struggle to maintain a healthy weight while managing limited resources and the daily stresses that come with living in underserved neighborhoods. SNAP helps families stretch their food dollars to alleviate hunger and buy healthier foods.

SNAP has the potential to be a public health tool that can help address the complex problems of hunger and obesity. For instance, many states and cities have established public-private partnerships to increase the value of SNAP dollars for the purchase of healthy foods. For instance, if you use a SNAP card to buy food at a farmers' market in Michigan, the amount of money you spend is matched with up to $20 in tokens per day that you can use to buy Michigan-grown fruits and vegetables. That's a win-win situation. Customers get more healthy food for the dollar, and the state's farmers generate greater revenue.

No matter what we do to SNAP, it is worth noting that the aid it provides is meant to be temporary. USDA statistics show that half of new participants leave the program within nine months. Total beneficiaries also are expected to drop naturally over the next few years as the economy improves and the unemployment rate goes down. In other words, at its core, SNAP is designed to promote self-sufficiency and ultimately reduce people's reliance on government assistance.

It is perhaps a cruel irony that, even though SNAP is exempt from the pending automatic spending cuts known as sequestration, members of Congress are on the verge of slicing a big chunk out of the program through the Farm Bill. Fortunately, there is still an opportunity for Congress to chart a different course. As we strive for a full economic recovery and a healthier nation, supporting SNAP is both the right thing to do and the smart thing to do.