SNAP vs. Block Grants

Forty years ago this Friday, President Carter signed into law the landmark 1977 Food Stamp Act, setting the framework for the modern Food Stamp Program – or, as it’s now known, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

As Congress continues efforts to pass a federal budget, we anticipate large cuts primarily to programs that serve low- and moderate-income Americans. One of these targeted program is SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), formerly known as food stamps.

SNAP is staring at a proposed $150 billion cut over ten years in the current House budget resolution. This proposal cuts the nation’s largest anti-hunger program by 30 percent.

After unemployment insurance, SNAP is the most responsive federal program providing additional assistance during economic downturns.  It also is an important nutritional support for low-wage working families, low-income seniors, and people with disabilities living on fixed incomes. If these cuts go into effect, thousands of Montanans would be at severe risk of food-insecurity.

The plan would impose direct program cuts through restricted eligibility or decreased benefit amounts, while also changing the foundational structure of the program. The bulk of the cuts would come from transferring “significant authority” over SNAP to the states. This means block granting the program.

As we have discussed before, block grants may sound like a benign approach to restructuring programs such as SNAP or Medicaid. But make no mistake: when members of Congress talk about block granting SNAP and giving more control and oversight of this nutrition-assistance program to states, it is anything but benign.

What is a block grant?

The idea behind “block granting” is to take a program, such as SNAP (or remember the health care debate and the GOP desire to block grant Medicaid?) and turn it into a consolidated block grant, which means providing states with a fixed amount of funding to run the program.

So what’s wrong with that?

In short, block grants can’t respond effectively or efficiently in an economic crisis or natural disaster. They also create an incentive for states to restrict eligibility in order to use the grant funding to fill other budgetary shortfalls, and often lose value over time if they do not appropriately account for inflation or population growth.

Right now, the federal government pays the full cost of SNAP benefits and splits the cost of administering the program with the states, which administer the program. SNAP responds quickly and effectively to support families and communities during times of increased need, such as job loss, family crisis, medical emergency, or when natural disaster strike. Enrollment expands when the economy weakens and contracts when the economy recovers and poverty declines.

If turned into a block grant, SNAP could not be a responsive program for the most vulnerable, food-insecure people. In the event of a natural disaster, such as the on-going wild fires that we’ve experienced this summer, SNAP would not be able respond when more families’ lives and jobs are disrupted and more households are in need of food assistance.

If need increased due to a disaster or recession, states would have to bear the entire cost of added food assistance themselves or make state budget cuts to stay within the provided federal block grant amount. Montana is already experiencing a significant revenue shortfall and harmful budget cuts across the board. Our state cannot possibly take on the additional cost of food-assistance payments if we cannot currently adequately fund health care services and our public schools.

Block-granting SNAP is a serious threat. As conversations about the federal budget and SNAP continue in Congress, we will be paying close attention to any cuts to this crucial nutrition-assistance program and any proposed structural changes – like block grants – that may ultimately undermine this successful anti-hunger, anti-poverty program that serves thousands of Montana families and children.

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