The economics of hunger — SNAP, the dignity of work, and the unreality of food deserts
“Do right and feed everyone,” is the motto adopted by Sonny Perdue’s United States Department of Agriculture and it’s a mantra Purdue has referenced in multiple press conferences, on his podcast Sonnyside of the Farm, and during speaking engagements. With this in mind, paired with a directive from President Trump, Perdue said he’s restructuring the SNAP program.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which accounts for the lion’s share of the farm bill, must be structured to work with our changing economy, prompting the move. In an editorial, Perdue said he wants to ensure people have the tools necessary to move away from SNAP dependency and back toward self-sufficiency, the original intent of the program.
The USDA’s reforms to the programs, Perdue said, will restore the dignity of work while also respecting the taxpayers who fund the program.
“Americans are generous people who believe it is their responsibility to help their fellow citizens when they encounter a difficult stretch,” Perdue said. “Government can be a powerful force for good, but government dependency has never been the American dream. We need to encourage people by giving them a helping hand but not allowing it to become an indefinitely giving hand. Now, in the midst of the strongest economy in a generation, we need everyone who can work, to work. This rule lays the groundwork for the expectation that able-bodied Americans re-enter the workforce where there are currently more job openings than people to fill them.”
According to the USDA, the unemployment rate is at its lowest in 50 years at 3.6 percent with 7 million job openings. In 2000, the unemployment rate was 4 percent and 17 million Americans were receiving SNAP benefits. In 2019, the unemployment rate is 3.6 percent and the number of Americans receiving SNAP is over 36 million.
The final rule from the USDA promotes work for able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 49 without dependents and does not apply to children and their parents. Those over 50 including the elderly, those with a disability, or pregnant women.
According to information from the USDA, long-standing SNAP statute limits these adults to three months of benefits in a three-year period — unless they work or participate in work training for at least 20 hours per week. The law allows states to apply for waivers of this time limit due to economic conditions, but prior to the rule, counties with an unemployment rate as low as 2.5 percent were included in waived areas. Under USDA’s rule, states retain their statutory flexibility to waive the time-limit in areas of high unemployment and to exempt a percentage of their ABAWD caseload. Even when working, those who qualify from an income perspective, will still receive their SNAP benefits.
There are multiple ways for individuals to engage and maintain their SNAP benefits, from working, to preparing for work and volunteering. States have a responsibility to assess individuals as work-capable and must renew their focus on helping SNAP participants to find a path to self-sufficiency. There are a number of tools to assist with challenges. For example, states are provided funding to operate employment and training programs, which can provide everything from job training to necessary work supports, such as boots, uniforms and transit subsidies. States also have access to programs and services provided by other federal agencies, state and county governments, and local service providers.
Perdue’s proposal potentially takes control away from individual states, a drawback Dr. Craig Gunderman said would accompany proposed changes. Gunderman, an ACES Distinguished Professor within the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics at the University of Illinois, said the proposed changes to the SNAP program are poor ideas for several reasons.
SNAP, he said, is designed to be an anti-hunger program and over it’s 50 years in existence, it has been one of the most successful government programs. Imposed work requirements can be imposed on some programs successfully, like in the case of unemployment insurance, but Gunderson said it doesn’t align with the goals of the program.
Additionally, Gunderson said for each additional dollar a SNAP benefits recipient earns, he or she loses 0.24 in benefits to ensure that recipients don’t lose their benefits and that the design of the program doesn’t discourage working and earning more.
“Something to emphasize about this is this isn’t true of all assistance programs,” he said. “There are some poorly designed programs whereby if you earn $1 more than the threshold, you lose all your benefits, as an example, medicaid.”
The imposed work requirements for recipients who are able bodied, between the ages of 18 to 49, and without dependents, would create a new government bureaucracy to monitor whether or not people are working. Removing the state’s ability to ask for waivers, he said, is another thing that perhaps ought not be removed.
Having SNAP under the jurisdiction of the USDA is positive, he said. Removing nutritional programs would reduce the size of the USDA by about 80 percent. The strength of the USDA, he said, to some extent is its size. The role of the USDA is to ensure a stable food supply and the role of SNAP fits that role well as SNAP ensures people have enough money to afford that stable food supply.
Food economist Jayson Lusk recently wrote about whether the poor diets of Americans in lower income brackets was the result of preference or accessibility. Utilizing some of his own work and research published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, he said improving diets is less about efforts to eliminate food deserts and more about finding ways to increase income.
Lusk wrote that much public health literature has documented that low-income neighborhoods suffer from lower availability of healthy groceries and that lower-income households tend to eat less healthfully. This, he said, began a movement aimed to eliminate food deserts. However, the study published by Hunt Alcott, Rebecca Diamond, Jean-Pierre Dube, Jessie Handbury, Ilya Rahkovsky, and Molly Schnell, that has gone through the peer review process since its original publication in 2017, determines that the food desert movement is misguided.
In the abstract, the research team said they reject that neighborhood environments contribute meaningfully to nutritional inequality.
“Counterfactual simulations show that exposing low-income households to the same products and prices available to high income households reduces nutritional inequality by only about 10 percent, while the remaining 90 percent is driven by differences in demand. These findings counter the argument that policies to increase the supply of healthy groceries could play an important role in reducing nutritional inequality.”
Lusk said the solution rests in raising incomes and, to a lesser degree, through successfully implementing nutrition and health education. ❖
— Gabel is an assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at email@example.com or (970) 392-4410.