Editor’s note: Please enjoy this Dr. Rosmann column from November 2013.
How much food stamp availability under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has become a main point of contention, if not the most controversial issue, concerning passage of a new Farm Bill by the U.S. Congress. How much of what is being said by politicians and the media is accurate?
Because of implications for both agricultural producers and consumers, let’s take a candid look at needs and the health and well-being of food stamp users, as well as how SNAP affects agricultural producers. My aim is not to wade into the political discussion but to concentrate on factual information.
SNAP spending more than doubled from 2007 to 2012. There is little disagreement about this, and that federal support of SNAP last year was about $78 billion, which is by far the biggest item (80 percent) of the 2008 Farm Bill.
Historically, applications for food stamps have increased during economic recessions and decreased during economic recoveries, as depicted in an Oct. 16, 2013, report by Michael Tanner of the CATO Institute. The first food stamp program appeared in 1939 during the latter part of the Great Depression and continued until spring 1943.
Thereafter, USDA data (www.DailyJobsUpdate.com) about food stamp usage illustrate a pattern of waxing and waning that fairly closely follows the federal unemployment rate. The current high rate of food stamp usage is declining slowly as unemployment decreases and because of mandated SNAP cuts, such as the recent end of the Bush-Obama Economic Stimulus Program that reduced total SNAP benefits by about $5B annually.
How widespread is SNAP fraud? Citing USDA data, Andrew Montgomery of Freedom Works (www.freedomworks.org) says 47 million Americans utilized food stamps in 2012, which is 1/7th of all U.S. citizens. About half of current SNAP beneficiaries have received benefits for more than five years.
“They are subject to large scale fraud and error,” Montgomery says. According to Kevin Concannon, the director of SNAP for the USDA, the amount of consumer SNAP fraud in 2011 was about $750 million.
As best I can determine, and depending on which statistics are cited, food stamp fraud varies from about 4 percent to 1.5 percent each year and has been decreasing lately. Supporters of SNAP suggest food stamp recipients who are unemployed are becoming more desperate and are increasingly relying on declining supplies from food banks operated by churches and other nonprofit organizations.
Those who endorse SNAP cutbacks say work requirements for many food stamp claimants are not enforced. Tanner says about 44 percent of able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWD) are not working their required 20 hours per week.
SNAP proponents claim adequate-paying jobs are not available for most ABAWD persons but recognize reforms could improve the SNAP requirements.
The USDA reports there are three main kinds of fraud: 1) recipients trading food stamps for cash, a practice which is called trafficking, and is conducted mostly by organized crime rings, 2) recipients lying on their applications to obtain food stamps and 3) retailers lying on applications to resume as SNAP vendors after having been disqualified previously because they exceeded the quota of three founded cases of food stamp misuse.
USDA investigators say most fraudulent retailers are small independent vendors who need the income generated from customers who pay for goods with food stamps, rather than larger chain stores, because the chain store retailers do not want to risk losing their permits to accept food stamps over a small number of customers.
In 2012 about 2,100 stores nationwide were sanctioned or disqualified permanently as a result of undercover investigations authorized by the USDA Inspector General. Trafficking and retail fraud involved less than one percent of all SNAP benefits in 2012.
What happens to persons who have insufficient nutrition? USDA statistics indicate that 49 percent of all SNAP beneficiaries are children.
People, especially children, who are hungry seek foods that are high in caloric content, which explains why about six percent more SNAP recipients are obese than the general public. They often lack adequate protein in their diets, because protein sources such as meat and dairy products are more expensive to purchase.
Moreover, they tend to crave immediate glucose satisfaction for hunger urges rather than slower metabolizing proteins. Brain neuron development is slowed when children do not have enough protein and rich fats (not sugars) in their diets.
SNAP cutbacks affect mainly two types of agricultural producers: Farmers who produce meat, eggs and dairy products, and farmers who produce fresh vegetables. With fewer food stamps available, consumers rely more on canned goods and processed grains such as pasta, which “go farther” but have lower nutritional value in the long run.
SNAP cutbacks reduce a guaranteed market for agricultural goods. Proponents say reductions of SNAP also hurt merchandisers and the economy in general because every dollar of SNAP benefits produces $1.70 in economic stimulus as the benefits circulate through the local community.
Express your thoughts about SNAP to your elected leaders.
Dr. Rosmann is a psychologist who lives on a farm near Harlan, Iowa. Contact him at www.agbehavioralhealth.com.
Dr. Rosmann lives on a family farm near Harlan, Iowa. He is a psychologist who has directed behavioral health programs in response to disasters of all types, Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.