With news that Congress has finally reached a deal to reauthorize the Farm Bill, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps, is back in the spotlight. The Farm Bill, which bundles agricultural subsidies and food assistance programs, would cut $8.6 billion from SNAP over 10 years. This has been hailed as a victory for both Republicans, who have been looking to cut spending for social services, and Democrats, who were able to reduce the severity of cuts from $40 billion dollars in a September version of the bill.
While members of Congress steady their lenses to justify why this bill is a victory for their side, the real focus should be how these cuts affect families receiving SNAP and the communities where they live.
Food assistance reduces hunger and generates economic activity
More families in Mississippi struggle to regularly put meals on the table than anywhere else in the country. Food insecure Mississippians are often forced to stretch dollars by opting for processed foods laden with refined sugars and grains. Sometimes they skip meals all together. Prolonged food insecurity has been shown to contribute to a long list of adverse physical and mental health outcomes, including diabetes, hypertension, depression, anxiety, delayed social skills development in children, and more.
SNAP has proven to be effective in relieving hunger. Any person who meets the eligibility requirements can receive benefits as long as he or she needs, so the program is especially responsive to economic downturns. SNAP has helped feed over 47 million Americans during the most recent recession. As millions of people lost their jobs, SNAP kept 4.7 million Americans out of poverty.
Critics of the program often cite the potential for fraud and abuse, suggesting that SNAP acts as a slush fund for the poor. In reality, fraud accounts for only one cent of every dollar spent on SNAP nationwide. The average SNAP recipient in Mississippi only receives about $4 a day – hardly a way to get rich quick. That assistance is targeted to the people who need it most. According to Feeding America, the nation’s largest network of food banks, 83 percent of all SNAP benefits go to households with a child, a senior citizen, or a disabled person.
SNAP also brings federal dollars into our communities supporting grocery retailers, farmers, food producers, truckers, and others whose jobs depend on people buying food. Last year SNAP spending in Mississippi totaled nearly $750 million. The USDA estimates that every $5 in SNAP spending generates $9 in local economic activity. That amounts to a $1.35 billion boost for Mississippi communities last year.
If SNAP is so effective, why do Mississippians still go hungry?
The truth is Mississippians face more barriers to accessing food assistance programs than our national counterparts. Mississippi’s eligibility requirements are among the most restrictive in the nation. For instance, Mississippi’s eligibility threshold is 130 percent of the federal poverty line, instead of 185 or 200 percent as in other parts of the country. Applicants must also submit to an in-person interview — a larger burden of time and transportation — whereas many other states permit a phone interview. Homeless applicants must maintain cumbersome documentation of shelter fees instead of a standard deduction.
Accessing the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) can be even more difficult. Mississippi is the only state that distributes WIC packages at state-run distribution centers rather than through the Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards used for SNAP. Almost 90 percent of Mississippi’s counties have only one distribution center, which burdens people who have difficulty with transportation — particularly in rural regions of the state. Mississippi is required to move WIC to its EBT system by 2020 but shows no signs of being proactive. Despite having the least cost-effective WIC system in the country, Mississippi seems content to maintain the status quo.
These barriers can have widespread impacts in Mississippi’s communities — especially where food assistance is needed most. The USDA defines a food desert as an area with a poverty rate greater than 20 percent and more than 33 percent of the population living over a mile from the nearest supermarket. The map below highlights the 19 census tracts identified as food deserts in Jackson. That represents a majority of the city:
Food assistance programs are often difficult to access in food deserts. The same map from above has been shaded to show the percent of Jackson households living under the poverty line that do not qualify for SNAP because they have encountered one or more barriers to enrollment:
The Mississippi Center for Justice is currently conducting research on Jackson’s food environment, specifically the extent of food insecurity and the gaps in food assistance. As many as one in every three Jackson households in the above food deserts fall into the food assistance gap created by public policy.
Other states have removed barriers to food assistance, thereby reducing food insecurity and strengthening local economies. Mississippi could do the same by increasing the income threshold for SNAP enrollment from 130 percent to 185 percent of the poverty line, eliminating the in-person interview requirement, and moving WIC from state-run distribution centers to the EBT system already in place.
After the reauthorization of the Farm Bill, we must consider what effect continued cuts to programs like SNAP will have on our communities. Mississippians shouldn’t stand by and let the food assistance gap widen. Programs such as SNAP and WIC are proven to improve the health of our communities and our economic well-being. Instead of debating how much money to cut from effective programs, we should be asking how we can lift up our communities and end the scourge of hunger.
This article was produced in collaboration with the Mississippi Center for Justice, a nonprofit public interest law firm that advances racial and economic justice through legal services, policy advocacy, community education, and media advocacy.