May 03, 2017

SNAP Series #4: The Federal Response

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For decades, SNAP – the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, aka food stamps – has been the most important resource available to Americans struggling with food insecurity. That’s why we at MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger remain committed to protecting and strengthening this program. One of the things that makes SNAP so effective is its structure as an entitlement program, which is comprised of two interrelated components:

  • Funding for SNAP is mandatory (or non-discretionary), which means it is guaranteed by the federal government.
  • If you meet the eligibility criteria and you apply, you receive benefits.

In other words, it’s SNAP’s structure that ensures that no one who qualifies for benefits can be turned away, for any reason. It’s SNAP’s structure that makes it so effective at preventing food insecurity and lifting millions of people out of poverty, year after year. It’s SNAP’s structure that enables the program to respond quickly and effectively to meet increases in need that result from such things as natural disasters or a severe economic downturn.

Despite the program’s monumental successes, some policymakers remain blinded by the program’s cost and their drive to reduce federal spending no matter the consequences. It’s these policymakers, led by Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan (R-WI), that want to change the structure of SNAP by converting it from an entitlement program to a block grant.  

So, what’s a block grant?
A block grant is a capped sum of money given to the states by the federal government to get something done locally. The basic idea, according to proponents of this approach, is that the states are in a better position to make decisions about how to serve their citizens’ needs, and therefore they should be given flexibility regarding how they should spend that money to accomplish the goal. On its face, it doesn’t seem so horrible, right?

Except that it is. 

Block granting miserably fails those in our nation who need this support the most. Here’s how: 

  • Block granting ends the federal guarantee. Simply put, each state gets a finite amount of money to address hunger locally. Gone is the program’s ability to expand when need rises, as it did during the 2008 recession. Gone is our collective promise that anyone who meets the eligibility criteria will get the help they need.
  • Block granting gives states incredible latitude regarding how they spend the money they get. It would be within their discretion to take money that had previously been given directly to low-income people to purchase food and redirect it to other programs or to fill budget gaps. Think that wouldn’t happen? Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) provides a worrying example about what can happen to programs that are block granted.
  • Block granted programs almost always suffer from significant reductions in federal funding over time. In the 13 programs that have been block granted since 2000, funding for 10 of them have fallen by more than 25%.     

Block granting may be disguised as “flex funds” or “independent state grants” or “opportunity grants.” Don’t be fooled. No matter its name, block granting will rip holes in our nation’s most critical anti-hunger safety net, making the problem of hunger in our country worse, not better.

We simply cannot let this happen. Join us in protecting SNAP.

Read all the posts in this series: