Bad public policy is no SNAP
The 75 percent increase in food stamp use in Northeast Pennsylvania over five years reflects the struggling regional economy. But it also is the result of bad public policy that is as persistent as hunger.
The underlying need is illustrated by a separate federal report finding that fraud in Pennsylvania's SNAP distribution is less than one fifth of the national average, which at 1.3 percent itself is among the lowest for any federal benefit program. Contrary to myth, the program isn't populated by free riders gaming the system, but by people with legitimate needs. (That didn't stop the Corbett administration this year from at least temporarily denying benefits to about 11,000 people through re-introduction of an asset test - not because the applicants were too wealthy, but because they couldn't come up with the required paperwork.)
Households with gross income of no more than 130 percent of the federal poverty guideline are eligible for SNAP. But most have income well below the maximum; nationally 83 percent of SNAP households have gross income at or below the guideline and those households receive about 91 percent of all benefits. About 61 percent of SNAP households have gross income at or below 75 percent of the poverty guideline.
In Northeast Pennsylvania, the average SNAP benefit is about $4.28 per person per day, far from the sort of benefit that would serve as an incentive for someone to forgo a job.
Some of the increase is due to working people becoming eligible due to wage stagnation amid higher food prices. Among SNAP households with at least one working-age, non-disabled adult, more than half work and more than 80 percent work in the year prior to or the year after receiving the benefit. In SNAP-eligible families with children, more than 60 percent have at least one worker.
SNAP has become not simply a federal benefit for low-income people, but in many cases a subsidy for companies that pay miserly wages making full-time workers eligible for food stamps. Yet many politicians who seek to diminish SNAP also oppose increasing the minimum wage.
Meanwhile, Congress is working on a new farm bill that will reduce SNAP funding by as much as $40 billion over 10 years, eliminating benefits to 3 million people while maintaining or increasing federal farm subsidies to wealthy interests - including at least 15 members of Congress.
Those subsidies make food more expensive for everyone, including SNAP participants. The sugar program alone cost consumers $14 billion over the last four years, while exporting more than 100,000 food-industry jobs to countries with free-market, lower-cost sugar.
Abating hunger isn't simply a matter of public money, it's a matter of politics and priorities.