09/25/2013 11:11 am ET Updated Nov 19, 2013

Hungry For Leadership On SNAP

While Congress has been making drastic cuts to food assistance, more Americans are hungry, and more are enrolling in SNAP (formerly known as food stamps). Recently Gallup released a poll showing a fifth of Americans struggling to afford food, about as many as during the depths of our recent recession. Yet many on the right see SNAP rates as the problem, rather than hunger. And Congressional Republicans failed to pass a farm bill this summer because a $20 billion dollar cut to the program didn't go far enough.

Yet public opinion on SNAP is not nearly so radical. To be sure, there is support for some cuts to the program. And while experts say SNAP trafficking has dropped to just 1 percent, many are concerned about the program's integrity. But few want to see the program dramatically changed. In fact, Kaiser Family Foundation found more voters wanted to see "minor" (41 percent) or "no" cuts (23 percent) than major cuts. And in an April poll by the group FRAC, 70 percent of voters (including a majority of Republicans) said cutting SNAP is not a good way to cut government spending.

My own qualitative research on SNAP this past summer confirms these findings. While some had reservations about the program, few wanted changes on par with what Congress has been discussing. In fact, when we discussed SNAP specifics -- such as an average benefit of approximately $1.50 per person per meal -- even fewer wanted to see further cuts. As one woman said: "You're taking back what we can't believe they're expected to spend anyway."

It seems many of voters' objections to SNAP are not grounded in spending worries, but in judgment of others' personal choices. We saw this in our focus groups, when respondents -- including SNAP recipients -- didn't want to see others use the program to buy food they themselves couldn't afford. Public polling shows this, too. In a Huffington Post/You Gov poll, a majority opposed SNAP benefits being spent on "crab legs." And a recent Fox News poll showed voters almost unanimously (94 percent) want to see "someone who has been laid off and can't afford to feed their family" receive SNAP, even if they almost nearly as unanimously opposed (91 percent) SNAP for an "unemployed musician who doesn't want to take a regular job which will pay him enough to live on."

Clearly more education about SNAP is required to address these views. Rather than unemployed musicians, three-fourths of SNAP households include children, seniors, or the disabled. And the recipients I spoke to struggle mightily to stretch their SNAP dollars, and certainly not by buying crab legs (although one wished she could afford to make cupcakes for her children). In fact, nearly all SNAP households are below the poverty line, which is about $20,000 for a family of three. A life on SNAP is far from easy.

But it's true, there is no values or personality test for SNAP. To those who suggest we have one, I would ask, shouldn't our nation's government also have a values test? And would denying food to hungry families be a pass or a fail? Despite some conflicted views toward the program, Americans clearly support the mission of SNAP. Congress should take notice, or risk flunking electoral tests of their own.