It has become a set piece of political theater for liberal Democrats, carried out in recent weeks by everyone from New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner to Connecticut senator Chris Murphy and a bevy of congressmen: attempting to eat on the $4.50-per-day food budget supposedly provided by the Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the program formerly known as “food stamps.” While always good for a headline, and generally accompanied by amusing photographs of the bizarre meals the politicians cobble together on their meager budget, the so-called SNAP challenge is also arrant nonsense.
To start with, virtually no one in America actually has to eat on just $4.50 per day. That number is derived by simply dividing the SNAP program’s budget by the number of recipients, arriving at an average benefit of $133.44 per month, or roughly $4.45 per day. However, that doesn’t tell us much about the size of the benefit that most families actually receive. For instance, SNAP benefits increase with family size. Thus, a family of four would receive $668 in benefits.
More important, the SNAP payments are not intended to be a family’s sole food income. As Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler pointed out, in pulling out a pair of Pinocchios for the SNAP challenge: “Note that the name of the program refers to ‘supplemental’ assistance.” SNAP benefits vary with income. Individuals with low incomes receive much higher SNAP benefits. Conversely, those individuals receiving the lowest benefits — say, $4.50 per day — are doing so precisely because they have other sources of income.
Indeed, the poorest SNAP recipients are almost universally receiving other welfare benefits, especially Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Medicaid. We should remember that there are actually 126 separate federal anti-poverty programs, and while no one receives benefits under every one of those programs, most poor people are eligible for benefits under multiple programs. SNAP isn’t even the only federal food program: There are currently 21 different programs providing food or food-purchasing assistance, administered by three different federal departments and one independent agency.
The latest dustup over SNAP was spurred by $20.5 billion in cuts to SNAP over the next ten years that were included in the late, unlamented farm bill. Democrats complained that those cuts were “a poison pill” that forced them to vote against the bill. Their votes, together with those of anti-spending Republicans, killed the farm bill, in a major setback for House Speaker John Boehner. Granted, the farm bill, a bloated and costly giveaway to special interests and one of the wealthier segments of society, should have been poisoned; but the Democratic objections to SNAP cuts were much ado about nothing.
The proposed SNAP cuts would have eventually reduced spending on the program all the way back to levels slightly higher than those of 2010, a year not particularly noted for mass starvation, and still higher than those of any year before that.