Updated on June 13, 2017
Access to nutritious, affordable food is a basic health need and human right.
For over 50 years, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has helped people in the US avoid hunger and malnutrition, and stay out of poverty. In 2015 alone, SNAP helped 45 million people in the US to eat, including children, people temporarily struggling to make ends meet during downtimes, people paid so little that they can’t afford to eat, and seniors or people living with disabilities who earn fixed or low incomes. Today, Congressional Republicans and the President propose drastic cuts to the program, to instead give wealthy people tax cuts.
As public health professionals, we’re uniquely positioned to advocate against these devastating changes: without food, people cannot work, let alone prosper; without food, children cannot learn, let alone thrive. SNAP is all that separates many Americans from frequent hunger and childhood malnutrition. We believe that all people — especially children and at-risk adults — should be able to eat regardless of their income. Let’s use our voices to protect SNAP for all children and adults!
This resource, produced by Public Health Awakened, is intended to help health department staff and other public health professionals protect health and equity in the face of drastic changes to SNAP.
In here, you will find:
Today, 45 million people in the US can afford to eat because of SNAP, a program that aims to alleviate hunger and malnutrition, and helps people stay out of poverty (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2016). These include families with children, which make up 7 out of 10 people who SNAP helps to feed (Econofact, 2017). Also, people who work — more than 80% of people using SNAP work in the year before or the year after receiving it, with even higher rates for families with children (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2013).
Currently, anyone who qualifies for SNAP can get access to food through the program (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2016). The federal government pays 100% of the cost of SNAP benefits, and splits the cost to administer the program with states (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2016). Funding for the program can increase or decrease as more or fewer people need coverage, such as during times of economic downturn or during disasters.
In 2015, SNAP helped people affected by wildfires in California, severe weather and tornadoes in Missouri, severe storms and flooding in South Carolina and Wyoming, and severe snow storms in Massachusetts — that kind of rapid response may change with Congressional Republicans’ proposals (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2016).
People who identify as liberals, conservatives, and moderates all use SNAP — and each group was as likely as the others to report using it (Pew Research Center, 2013).
Instead of strengthening the current SNAP program, Congressional Republicans and the President are suggesting enormous cuts and changes to it. Proposals being considered would drastically reduce how many at-risk children and adults can afford to eat by ending the federal government’s commitment to fully funding SNAP based on need, regardless of changes in how many people are eligible, economic cycles, policy changes, or disasters (Urban Institute, 2012). The proposals would take away food from people who depend on it. Instead of saving money, they would shift the burden from the federal government to states or even the people who use the programs. See the last section of this resource, “Nuts and Bolts: What are Republicans Proposing?” for specifics on how SNAP is funded and proposed changes to that funding.
Changes to SNAP could happen through 2 main routes: federal budgets and the Farm Bill.
The US House and the Senate already started hearings for the next Farm Bill, which includes SNAP and is set to expire in 2018.
Educate your community about potential health impacts of proposed changes to SNAP for your state — or more locally if you can access that data.
For example, using Kaiser Family Foundation and Center on Budget and Policy Priorities identify the number of people in your state covered by SNAP — describing available numbers of children, seniors, people living with disabilities, people just out of the reach of poverty, and people who work. Or cite info on SNAP use by Congressional district. Use local data and stories to highlight how undoing SNAP would undercut health for individuals and families.
Encourage your health department to speak publicly about proposed changes to SNAP.
Talk in your jurisdiction about proposed changes to SNAP, and use your platform at the health department to publicize the message.
Mobilize professional associations and advocates to take a position and provide them with data.
Work with professional associations like national, state, and local chapters of the American Public Health Association or the National Association of City and County Health Officials to communicate the impacts of the proposals. Provide local advocacy organizations with data, helping them understand how to request data from the health department as necessary, so they can make the case to protect SNAP.
Hold workshops for community members.
Host public workshops to help people understand SNAP and how changes may affect them.
Inform the public — repeatedly and often.
Write letters with health colleagues through professional organizations like the American Medical Association and American Public Health Association to inform people about how pending decisions would change health and equity. This brief can be a starting point.
Get proactive — call for strengthening SNAP.
Read the evidence, join the discussion, and look to partner with other groups or agencies in advocating to strengthen instead of dismantling SNAP. Put another choice on the table.
In particular, encourage these actions among fellow health professionals in places that stand to lose the most with proposed changes to SNAP, including: New Mexico, Louisiana, West Virginia, Mississippi, District of Columbia, Oregon, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and Delaware.
Start with values — for example, you can say:
“Access to nutritious, affordable food is a basic health need and human right.”
“Many people who work even more than full time — such as in food service, retail, and health care — are paid so little that they qualify for food assistance or SNAP. This may be the only way they can afford to feed themselves or their families.”
“Most of us agree on the basic principle that we all should be able to eat. All children should have food and people with disabilities, seniors, and people in great need should get food assistance that is essential to helping them live.”
“SNAP embodies these principles. And it works well.”
Here are some key points you can make about what SNAP looks like today:
Proposed changes to SNAP would lead to:
The rationale for radically changing SNAP does not stand up to scrutiny. There are 2 main and misguided criticisms:
First, critics suggest that the program is a handout and people are “trapped in the program with no way to get out” (US House of Representatives Committee on the Budget, 2016). That is incorrect — the program already imposes strict income, asset, and work requirements (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2016). Many states have additional mandatory employment and training requirements. Most people using SNAP who can work, do work — more than 80% work in the year before or the year after receiving SNAP, with even higher rates for families with children (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2013). Furthermore, people can only use SNAP benefits to pay for eligible groceries, and do not receive cash. Benefits cannot be used on alcohol, cigarettes, vitamins, non-food grocery items like household supplies, and hot foods (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2013).
Second, critics suggest that states cannot meet local needs. States already have options, which contribute to varying SNAP participation rates across states. In 2012, participation ranged from 100% of eligible people actually receiving SNAP in places like Maine and Oregon, to as few as just over half of eligible people in Nevada, Hawaii, the District of Columbia, and California (US Department of Agriculture, 2015). States have options in how they administer SNAP, coordinate with other human services programs, and in setting who is eligible for the programs — such as what people in a household can earn and still qualify for benefits — as long as it’s within the federal limit (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2016; Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2017; University of Wisconsin-Madison Institute for Research on Poverty, 2015). For example, states can ask to waive certain federal requirements if it’s in the program’s best interest — changes that, historically, made more people eligible for benefits. However, states cannot increase income thresholds above federal limits. See this US Department of Agriculture report for how each state exercises its options.
Moreover, SNAP gets money into the economy. Estimates are that in a weak economy, every $1 increase in SNAP benefits generates about $1.70 in economic activity through food that people buy and the ripple effects of those purchases, like needing more people to work as cashiers, stock shelves, transport food, and other related aspects (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2016).
SNAP has been shaped over time, both through the Farm Bill and other legislation. Congress renegotiates the US Farm Bill every 4 or 5 years, which since the 1970s also has included SNAP and earlier versions of it (Econofact, 2017). During the 1980s under President Reagan, a number of major cutbacks to SNAP were put in place; many of those were reversed soon after due to severe hunger problems (US Department of Agriculture, 2014). The 1990s saw additional restrictions, such as putting a time limit on how long certain adults can participate in the program (US Department of Agriculture, 2014).
In reality, cuts to SNAP are being proposed at the same time as tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy — the 1%, the 0.1%. Since those tax cuts mean an out-of-balance budget, many Republicans are suggesting taking away funding from programs like SNAP for people who earn low incomes so that the rich can become richer.
Currently, the federal government pays 100% of the cost for SNAP benefits, and splits the cost to administer the program with states. In 2015, the federal government spent $74 billion on SNAP.
Many Republicans are proposing 3 types of changes to SNAP: budget cuts, changing it into a block grant program, and limiting eligibility:
Under a block grant, instead of states getting a flexible amount of money each year that responds to what individuals and states need, they would get a set amount of money. This would severely limit states’ abilities to support people and families that are paid too little or have trouble making ends meet, particularly during times of economic downturn or during disasters.
History of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program offers a cautionary tale of the harms that can happen after switching federal programs to capped funding under block grants, which has left states with less money to support their residents and ultimately taken away services from families (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2017).