The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.
-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia
At the end of 2012, amidst calls for reform and fears of skyrocketing dairy prices, Congress failed to agree on a renewal of the Farm Bill (technically the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008). Instead, our representatives authorized extensions of certain portions of the Farm Bill, and put the whole of the renewal on the agenda for 2013.
What few Americans realize is that an ever-decreasing amount of the billions spent on the Farm Bill actually goes to farms. Instead, about 80 percent and upward is spent on what is termed “nutrition”—the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps, and other food-aid programs. The 2008 Farm Bill estimated that some $284 billion would be spent on its programs over the five-year period of FY2008-FY2012. Of that amount, $188.9 billion was budgeted for food stamps—some 67 percent of the total five-year budget.1 Beginning in 2010, however—due to rising food costs, the recession, and broad changes in eligibility—more than 80 percent of all Farm Bill spending has been on food stamps.
In other words, a multi-part bill that masquerades as agricultural policy is in fact almost entirely a public-aid program. And according to the Congressional Budget Office, the “Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 2012”—the continuation of the Farm Bill—will authorize some $969 billion over the next ten-year period, of which $768.2 billion (about 80 percent) will be on food stamps.2 The increasing dollars spent do not equal better nutrition, however. The data increasingly indicate that those on food stamps tend to have a worse diet than comparable low-income populations not on food stamps, while recent changes in program eligibility have vastly increased the numbers enrolled in SNAP. The greatest crime of food stamps, however, is that they encourage Americans to look to the federal government as the “parent” figure in their own lives even in something as fundamental as food, thus undermining the real family’s centrality to individuals’ well-being. Instead of relying on the earnings of a head of household, coupled with thrift and ingenuity and perhaps even a family garden, families are turning in vast numbers to government handouts.
The first Food Stamp Program (FSP) was engineered at the end of the Depression era as an intelligent response to the problem of governmentowned crop surpluses (bought to support prices), on one hand, and poor citizens, on the other. The FSP was launched on May 16, 1939.3 Citizens could purchase orange stamps, which could be spent on any type of food, and received 50 percent worth of what they spent on orange stamps back in blue stamps, which were to be used only on food items the government termed to be “surplus.” Praise (or blame) for the program goes most notably to Henry Wallace, then Secretary of Agriculture, and Milo Perkins, the first administrator of the FSP. Perkins summarized the apparent intelligence of the program aptly: “We got a picture of a gorge, with farm surpluses on one cliff and under-nourished city folks with outstretched hands on the other. We set out to find a practical way to build a bridge across that chasm.”4 After the Depression disappeared during World War II, the program was deemed no longer necessary, and it ended in the spring of 1943.
A new, experimental FSP was initiated by President Kennedy in 1961. Unlike the first FSP, this program did away with the concept of “surplus.” Participants in the program still had to purchase at least some quantity of their food stamps, but those stamps could be used on anything the family deemed necessary—with the exceptions of alcoholic beverages and imported foods, for which the family had to use its own resources. In 1964, President Johnson asked Congress to make the FSP a permanent program. Among the more notable provisions of this incarnation of the program was the nature of the cost load. The federal government agreed to fund program benefits in their entirety, while the state offices were responsible for enrolling new participants and distributing benefits. Administrative costs were split between state and federal governments. The next major milestone came in 1977, when the Food Stamp Act ended the requirement of even some nominal purchase. For the first time, food stamps were given away entirely. Alongside this move, however, the 1977 Act also penalized any heads of households who voluntarily left employment—maintaining a semblance of requirement for responsible behavior, and also emphasizing some overarching family structure that recognized a head of household whose duty it was to see to the well-being of his family. Over the next two decades, funding for the FSP was variously cut back and then expanded, based on budgetary considerations and economic climate.
Through the 1980s and 1990s, FSP enrollment lingered at around 20 million.5 But Clinton-era welfare reform (most notably, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Reconciliation Act, or PRWORA, of 1996) resulted in major increases in eligibility.
Most dramatically, eligibility has been broadened to ever-increasing numbers of people. PRWORA replaced the direct cash-payment program Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with the block-grant program Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), in an effort to shed millions from the welfare roles. PRWORA also allowed states to extend what is called “categorical eligibility” to SNAP to families eligible for TANF aid, meaning that for certain groups of people, income and asset requirements would effectively be waived. This was accomplished through one of two mechanisms. First, states could deem members of a household that received TANF benefits immediately eligible for SNAP. Second, states could deem all households receiving TANF-funded informational resources—such as a brochure or phone call—categorically eligible for SNAP.6 When PRWORA was introduced, however, one unforeseen consequence was actually an immediate and dramatic drop in the numbers of SNAP participants, because many who relied on ADFC also took advantage of the old FSP and had not managed to make the transition to SNAP.7 In response, legislators allowed and even encouraged states to continue to loosen both asset and reporting requirements, intending to ease access to a program that had already been broadened to include more people.
The result of this combination of loosening of asset and reporting requirements and broadening of categorical eligibility is that SNAP now supports not only the poor, but increasingly, the lower-middle class and the retired. In a recent report in National Affairs, David Armor and Sonia Sousa claimed that in 2010, 48 percent of the households receiving SNAP assistance had incomes over the federal poverty threshold.8 Congress permits states to establish categorical eligibility up to 200 percent of the official poverty line,9 and most new beneficiaries of SNAP are in fact enrolled through categorical eligibility, bypassing any tests of income or resources. The average benefits are not inexpensive to the U.S. taxpayer: In FY2010, the average benefit per household was $290 per month.10
What all of this data means is that it has become remarkably easy for both individuals and families living well above federal poverty levels to receive SNAP aid. Unsurprisingly, SNAP enrollment has skyrocketed. Roughly half of Americans will have been on SNAP assistance at some point by the age of 19, and in Fiscal Year 2012, over 46 million people received SNAP benefits.11 In easing the process of enrollment, the Farm Bill has made it remarkably simple for families to rely on free handouts rather than on each other—and millions of families are doing just that.
One of the primary goals of the Food Stamp Act of 1964 was the seemingly noble one of “provid[ing] for improved levels of nutrition among low-income households through a cooperative Federal-State program of food assistance . . . ”12 Evidence indicates that SNAP has failed miserably at that goal. SNAP participants tend to eat a little worse than other low-income individuals, and some research suggests that, at least among women, participating in SNAP is in fact a causal factor of obesity.
An official review by the USDA in 2008 of studies that look at SNAP’s relationship to obesity argued that “Results from reviewed studies indicate that for most participants in the Food Stamp Program—children, nonelderly men, and the elderly—use of food stamp benefits does not result in an increase in either Body Mass Index (BMI) or the likelihood of being overweight or obese.”13 The exception, which the report indicates, is nonelderly women—28 percent of all SNAP beneficiaries. According to even the USDA review—for obvious reasons the kindest among the formal studies—“food stamp participation over a 1- or 2-year period increases the probability of a woman’s becoming obese by 2 to 5 percentage points and may lead to a 0.5-point increase in BMI, or about 3 pounds for a woman 5\'4\" to 5\'6\" tall.”14 Studies also indicate that “long-term participation among nonelderly women was linked to a higher probability of obesity by 4.5 to 10 percentage points.”15 Other reviews are more damning: a 2010 Harvard study discovered that obesity rates among SNAP participants were 30 percent higher than among nonparticipants when adjusted for socio-demographic characteristics and a number of other factors.16
In an effort to study not just the obesity rates but actual nutritional intake, Cindy Leung et al. discovered “that SNAP participation was associated with greater adiposity, a higher prevalence of dyslipidemia [higher amounts of lipids in the blood], elevated fasting glucose, and the metabolic syndrome.”17 Taking into account such variables as race/ethnicity, age, sex, etc., Leung found that almost all low-income participants (regardless of participation in SNAP) had diets deficient in whole grains, fruit, vegetables, fish, and nuts/seeds/legumes. Many low-income individuals also consumed more than the recommended amounts of processed meats, sweets, and sugar-sweetened beverages such as soda or energy drinks. SNAP participants, however, consumed 39 percent less of whole grains, 44 percent more of fruit juice, 56 percent more potatoes, and 46 percent more red meat. Soda intake was also pronounced among SNAP participants: among non-Hispanic whites, SNAP beneficiaries drank 60 percent more sugar-sweetened sodas than non-SNAP participants.
Overall, SNAP participants consumed more red meats, sugars, and total fat than did those who were eligible for SNAP but who did not participate. Leung concludes, “Our results show that low-income adults receiving SNAP benefits have diets that are poorer in quality than those of income-eligible nonparticipants, which may contribute to the higher prevalences of obesity and obesity-related complications in this population.” Another study by Leung demonstrates that “After adjustment for sociodemographic characteristics, the odds of obesity was 58 percent higher among SNAP participants than among nonparticipants” and that SNAP participation was also associated with several “metabolic risk factors” such as a larger waist, elevated fasting triglycerides, and lower amounts of HDL cholesterol (the good kind).18 In a case study of SNAP participants in Tennessee, Steven Yen, Donald Bruce, and Lisa Jahns found that “The results . . . suggest the effect of SNAP participation on health is negative overall. Participation in SNAP generally increases the probabilities of being in the poor SAH [self-assessed health] category and decreases the probabilities of being in the very good category.”19
The USDA suggests that it is possible that those who are prone to obesity also participate in SNAP at a higher rate, because they need more food to maintain existing body weight. Many authors posit that the monthly nature of SNAP benefits lends itself to a “binge and fast” diet, in which the participants stock up on richer foods at the beginning of the month, when they receive SNAP benefits, and then eat less as those funds run out. Such a pattern may in fact cause weight gain, as the body’s metabolism slows down in response to less food during certain periods. But even if all of this is true, we are still left with the central fact that the nature of SNAP seems somehow to encourage its beneficiaries to have poor nutrition. Even if more obese people are on SNAP, shouldn’t something within the program help these people establish a healthier lifestyle, rather than facilitating a destructive pattern that in the end costs taxpayers billions every year?
The central problem with SNAP’s relationship to nutrition is that there are very few restrictions as to what can be purchased with SNAP funding. With the exception of alcoholic beverages, tobacco products, hot or prepared foods, and dietary supplements, everything is fair game. In addition, there is no tracking system in place that keeps a record of what SNAP participants actually choose to spend their funds on, so data on SNAP participant dietary intake is limited. The data we do have does not indicate anything good, however, and increasingly, seems to show that massive corporations that benefit from our nation’s corn-heavy diet play a role in ensuring that low-income Americans on SNAP have greater access to low-priced, sugary, corn-based products than they do to whole grains or fruits and vegetables.
Take soda as an example. In a highly publicized case in 2010, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg asked the USDA for permission to launch a pilot program that would prohibit SNAP beneficiaries from using their SNAP funds to purchase sugar-sweetened beverages such as soda, which accounted for between an estimated $75 million and $135 million annually in SNAP spending in New York City alone.20 For two years, according to the mayor’s plan, SNAP funds could not be used for such beverages. At the end of that period, experts would study the overall benefit, if any, in curbing New York’s obesity epidemic, which has especially hit the low-income. Lobbyists for the beverage industry went to work: Tracey Halliday of the American Beverage Association stated that “This is just another attempt by government to tell New Yorkers what they should eat and drink.”21 Members of the Black Congressional Caucus—a group whose largest contributors are Coca-Cola and PepsiCola—urged the Obama Administration to reject Bloomberg’s request, arguing that it was unfair to treat SNAP recipients any differently than others.22
The USDA turned down New York City’s request, citing unpreparedness both to implement the program and to study the results.23 The USDA also “expressed concern” that such a program would further stigmatize SNAP participants. This rejection points out the inconsistency of current U.S. food policy. U.S. taxpayers foot the bill—amounting to billions of dollars a year—for the SNAP program, but compelling research like the Leung studies cited above indicate that SNAP recipients spend a larger-than-average proportion of those funds on poor nutritional choices like sodas. Then, American taxpayers pay for programs like Medicare and Medicaid, which are staggering under the weight of diet-induced diseases such as obesity, hypertension, and diabetes. In a Commentary piece in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Kelly Brownell and David Ludwig point out, “The federal and state governments through Medicare and Medicaid bear high and increasing health care costs from diet-related disease, yet through the SNAP program buy an estimated $4 billion worth of sugar-sweetened beverages every year.”24
One can object to SNAP on both financial and nutritional grounds, but perhaps the greatest concern is that SNAP is one more program that encourages families to forfeit responsibility for each other to another entity—in this case, federal and state governments. Nearly half (49 percent) of all SNAP beneficiaries are children, and the program advertises that it is a “household-level program, and 89 percent of food stamp benefits go to households that contain a child, elderly adult, or nonelderly disabled adult.”25 Even more significantly, SNAP households are overwhelmingly headed by single parents—usually mothers—or by cohabiting adults. The USDA reports that in 2010, over half (56 percent) of SNAP households with children were headed by single parents. Only 9 percent of SNAP households with children were headed by a married adult.26 Unsurprisingly, the single-parent homes fared worse than the married-parent homes. Although married-parent households received greater SNAP benefits overall (because of the extra person in the house), per-capita benefits were greater for single-parent households, because their overall income was lower than that of married-parent homes.
There is also evidence that instead of being the temporary safety net it was originally intended to be, SNAP has become a long-term solution for many families. In a Heritage Foundation report calling for program reform, Robert Rector and Katherine Bradley highlighted the fact that over half of food-stamp aid goes to families who have been enrolled in SNAP for eight and a half years or more, and that 40 percent of all SNAP households have been on SNAP for ten years or over. 27 Rector and Bradley argue that SNAP is an “old-style entitlement program” that has historically been resistant to welfare reform, and they estimate that of 10.5 million households on SNAP that contain adults capable of working, 5.5 million of those adults performed no work during the month in question.
Overall, then, SNAP is one more “safety net” in place to compensate for the breakdown of the American family, but this particular net has no bounce—nothing to encourage recipients to get up and back to work. It fosters dependency, incentivizes single parenthood, discourages work, and encourages its beneficiaries to see the federal and state governments as the parent figure—for generations. Instead of learning to lean on each other and cooperate within the family unit, individual SNAP recipients learn that if their family falls apart, the federal government will step in with dinner.
Because of the nature of Farm Bill subsidies, SNAP also encourages agribusiness and discourages small family farms and enterprise. Farm Bill funds go overwhelmingly to large corporations and to specific crops— grains. The result is that grains are the cheapest crop for food companies to mass produce, leading to a glut of sugar-sweetened beverages, cheap grain-fed meat, and junk food. Everyone who goes to the grocery store notices that the foods around the outside perimeter of the store—the vegetables, fresh dairy, and fresh meat—are the most expensive. The foods in the inside store aisles—boxed, canned, and frozen, for the most part—are the least expensive. SNAP recipients, who lack resources, are driven to the inner aisles, where they can choose freely from sodas, chips, and cheap frozen meals. Agribusiness thrives and corporations thrive, as was obvious in New York when Bloomberg tried to prevent SNAP benefits from going to soda companies. Meanwhile, however, small family farms suffer from the competition, families on SNAP suffer from the poor nutrition of the cheapest foods, and non-SNAP participating American families suffer from inflated prices of healthy food and an ever-increasing tax burden to fund the Farm Bill. The only one who appears to prosper in this arrangement is agribusiness.
So what is to be done? The best we can hope for is sensible reform, coupled with a few old-fashioned ideas, in which the policy suggestions below might help:
Transform SNAP from a long-term entitlement program to a short-term safety net.
As Rector and Bradley point out, SNAP has been notably resistant to any type of welfare reform. Indeed, policymakers in the 1990s seemed far more concerned that welfare reform would not harm access to food stamps than they were with getting people off of food stamps and relying on other means of support. SNAP participation should have an expiration date, like aid programs such as unemployment benefits, which recognize the individual’s probability of getting back to work. In addition, SNAP should be linked to some kind of getting-to-work program, incentivizing individuals to end government dependency. Another possibility is to return to the purchase requirement, which forced the old FSP beneficiaries to purchase at least some portion of food stamps and assume some semblance of family independence.
But first and foremost, categorical eligibility must be drastically altered. Although the original purpose—simplifying the process of SNAP enrollment—may be laudable on its surface, it is currently far too easy for Americans to receive SNAP aid. When reporting and eligibility policies were loosened, millions of people who may otherwise have had to rely on family members and on local pantries and churches, or been forced to be more ingenuous in their own family finances, instead became long-term SNAP beneficiaries. Many of these people have stayed on SNAP now for generations, teaching children that the important institutions in life are federal and state governments, not their own families.
The Farm Bill should drastically alter the way it subsidizes so as to promote diversity and enterprise.
Currently, the U.S. has an agricultural policy that financially supports monocultures and discourages farm diversity. We overwhelmingly support grains—corn, wheat, soy, and rice—to the detriment of fresh fruits and vegetables, making the latter much more expensive in a calorie-to-calorie comparison. Fresh fruits and vegetables have been more expensive for so long that many Americans are not even sure how to cook them or use them in meals. The Farm Bill should encourage nutrition by spending on fruits and vegetables and grass-fed animal products, rather than encouraging grains.
In addition, the USDA could encourage SNAP recipients to frequent farmers markets and other suppliers of fresh, local foods by making the process of becoming a SNAP seller easier. Currently, over 7,000 farmers markets nationally are licensed to receive SNAP benefits, but the SNAP program puts the onus of applying for a license and becoming certified to receive benefits solely on the business owner or farmers market in question. Small business owners do not have the time or resources to spare to wade through red tape, and SNAP could ease access through using local office representatives to take over the burden of application and licensing. Such an approach would both encourage better nutrition among SNAP beneficiaries and also strengthen local economies by pushing more buyers to family farms and family-operated businesses.
Another idea might be requiring SNAP recipients to spend a certain portion of their aid on foods specially marked “local” or in stores with such a designation, thus giving the program more nutritional value and boosting a local economy that supports small family business. Finally, SNAP beneficiaries should be encouraged to get their hands dirty through participating in either individual or communal gardening. One interesting example of such communal gardening is Troy Gardens in Madison, Wisconsin.
The story of Troy Gardens began in 1995. That year, Madison placed a 15-acre parcel of land in an urban area on the state’s “surplus land list,” meaning the parcel would most likely be sold to a private developer. But nearby residents had been gardening a four-acre plot of that land for some 15 years, and using the other 11 acres for recreation, dog-walking, etc. A group of local organizations formed the Troy Gardens Coalition, with the purpose of protecting their little plot of land, and devised “an innovative proposal for integrated land use, one that combined housing with open space and agricultural uses.”28 (By this point, another 16-acre parcel of unused land directly north of the original parcel had been added to the proposal.) The city accepted the plan, and the Coalition and the state of Wisconsin reached a leasing agreement. After years of hard work, the Madison Area Community Land Trust purchased the land in 2001, and Community GroundWorks was formed. The organization now includes Troy Gardens, a community garden where local residents can rent small plots of ground on which to grow food each year; Troy Community Farm, a certified organic, five-acre farm that grows and sells food at a small stand on the property itself and also at a local Madison farmers market; Urban Natural Areas, a protected “natural” area that hosts tours; and a handful of other community programs, including youth outreach and educational events.
Troy Gardens is just one of many examples of the “urban gardening” movement, a movement that is growing in leaps and bounds, as more and more urban dwellers want to become involved in the production of their own food. Part of SNAP reform might be that beneficiaries are required to put in some hours of labor per week at a local community garden, either through an already-existing program like Community GroundWorks (there are many in operation), or merely on a plot of land approved by the local Food and Nutrition Services office to be a “SNAP” garden.
3) The Farm Bill should more closely regulate what types of foods can be purchased with SNAP funds.
The defenders of freedom of choice—most notably the soda and snack-food companies—cry out that regulating SNAP benefits demeans those who are forced to accept those benefits by suggesting that they do not know how to monitor their own health. This is not a groundless argument. In general, the American people have discovered that more government regulation breeds trouble, and an argument guaranteeing personal freedom would dictate that if Americans want to make themselves sick, that is their problem and no one else’s.
But when American food policy requires taxpayers to foot the bill for both the food that makes their fellow Americans sick and the medical treatment for those illnesses, we must question the sanity of such policies. For financial reasons alone, program administrators should more closely regulate what types of foods can be purchased with SNAP funds, and they should also require mandatory nutrition education before entering the program. The goal of SNAP, in short, should be to steer people toward eating well while they receive benefits, and, even better, to getting away from those benefits altogether.
These suggestions are not comprehensive, but they are a beginning on the right path to reforming SNAP and thus nutrition among lowincome Americans, encouraging families to depend upon each other instead of government aid, dis-incentivizing single parenthood, and promoting strong local economies that can support family businesses. Americans cannot afford to let SNAP proceed as it has any longer. It is time for us to take back our health and stop supporting policies that encourage poor nutrition and government dependence instead of health and family autonomy.
Nicole M. King is the managing editor of The Family in America.
1 . Jim Monke and Renée Johnson, “Actual Farm Bill Spending and Cost Estimates,” Congressional Research Service 7-5700, R41195, 13 December 2010, http://www.nationalaglawcenter.org/ assets/crs/R41195.pdf.
3 . This and all other information on the history of food stamps taken from United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service, “A Short History of SNAP,” Janury 8, 2013, http://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/rules/Legislation/about.htm. Accessed April 5, 2013.
10 . USDA, “Characteristics of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Households: Fiscal Year 2010,” Nutrition Assistance Program Report Series, Report No. SNAP-11-CHAR (September 2011): xv. http://www.fns.usda.gov/ora/menu/Published/snap/FILES/Participation/2010Chara cteristics.pdf
11 . USDA, Food and Nutrition Services, “Program Information Report (Keydata): FY 2012FY2013,” December 2012, http://www.fns.usda.gov/sites/default/files/datastatistics/Keydata%20 December%202012%20%283-8-2013%29_0.pdf.
18 . Cindy W. Leung, Walter C. Willett, and Eric L. Ding, “Low-Income Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Participation is Related to Adiposity and Metabolic Risk Factors,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 95 (2012): 17.
19 . Steven T. Yen, Donald J. Bruce, and Lisa Jahns, “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Participation and Health: Evidence from Low-Income Individuals in Tennessee,” Contemporary Economic Policy 30, no. 1 (2012): 9.