SNAP Enrollments Are Dropping—Which Means the Program Is Working

As the economy improves, fewer people are applying for food assistance, but experts say the program must remain strong.

(Photo: Michael S. Willamson/Getty Images)

Jul 25, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

There's a reason why Newt Gingrich dubbed Barack Obama the "food stamp president." Between 2009 and 2013, enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the largest nutritional safety net for America’s most vulnerable families, ballooned from 33.5 million to 47.6 million participants. Critics of the program, including many on the right, politicized the higher enrollment numbers, arguing that we were becoming a nation of takers. Gingrich, among others, laid blame for the increase squarely at Obama's feet—never mind that more Americans were enrolled in SNAP under George W. Bush than under Obama.

But as the economy strengthens and more Americans are going back to work, the tide of SNAP enrollment and participation is beginning to ebb. The newest report from the United States Department of Agriculture shows the first year-over-year decline in several years, down a million participants from 2013—and we’re just more than halfway through 2014. Advocates of the program say this downward trend in both enrollment and usage indicates that SNAP is doing what it is intended to do.

“SNAP enrollment is supposed to increase when we have a recession and unemployment increases and people need it,” says Dr. John Cook, researcher and principal investigator with Children’s HealthWatch in Boston. “As the economy improves and unemployment goes down, SNAP decreases. We expected it to happen, and people can get really concerned about increasing enrollment in SNAP, but they forget that that’s what the program is intended to do.”

The program was designed to be countercyclical, allowing anyone who is eligible to enroll. That means SNAP is stronger when the economy and employment levels are weaker—it's part of the safety net, after all. And sure enough, the national unemployment rate is on its way down. After reaching a six-year high of 10 percent in 2009 and hovering between 9 and 10 percent for two years, the unemployment rate declined steadily throughout 2012 and 2013 and now stands at 6.1 percent—a figure not seen since September 2008.

Because boom and bust is the nature of capitalism, Cook warns against tinkering too much with nutritional assistance programs in the way of budget cuts.

“Creating and maintaining SNAP is the best policy our government has ever made for the people,” he says. “You can reduce your support for SNAP, but be prepared for extreme suffering when the next recession comes—and it will come.”

Still, Republicans are continuing their push to reduce the federal safety net. On Thursday, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., chair of the House Budget Committee, unveiled a so-called antipoverty plan—“Expanding Opportunity in America”—that would roll up 11 federal programs (including SNAP, housing vouchers, heating aid, child-care assistance, and welfare payments) into a single block of aid delivered to states in the form of a grant. The plan would give states more say in what programs they choose to fund and by how much. But critics say Ryan's approach would devastate the safety net that worked so well for tens of millions of struggling Americans over the last several years. As a block grant given to states—that can opt in and out of the program—funding for programs like SNAP would be fixed rather than adjustable to changing economic times.

An article posted today at FiveThirtyEight showed how a fixed funding structure would have affected the average monthly per-person SNAP benefit. If Ryan’s Opportunity Grant pilot had been up and running in 2007, ahead of the increased SNAP enrollments that would occur over the next six years, the average monthly benefit would have been about $53 per person—compared to the actual figure of $133 in 2013.

Robert Greenstein, founder and president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, eviscerated Ryan's plan following its release, saying the scheme would increase poverty in America. The plan would perform especially poorly in recessions, he wrote.

“Chairman Ryan describes the ‘Opportunity Grant’ proposal as providing the same level of resources for low-income families and individuals, not cutting them,” he wrote. “However, that’s very unlikely to end up occurring. And that is why Chairman Ryan’s plan would likely boost poverty and hardship over time and would prove particularly problematic in recessions.”