Research & Commentary: Reforming SNAP

Published December 16, 2013

Funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the food assistance program also known as food stamps, has received increased attention in recent months. A funding reduction, which began at the beginning of November, was not a result of cuts by Congress but instead resulted from the ending of a temporary funding increase in President Barack Obama’s 2009 stimulus package.

These reductions, which cannot truly be considered cuts, reduce SNAP funding only to its original funding levels and result in an average decrease of only around 5 percent for those households receiving the maximum amount of food stamps, according to The Heritage Foundation. In September, the U.S. House approved legislation to cut $39 billion in funds over the next decade for food stamp programs. The bill also would reform eligibility standards and increase the focus on employment by ending work requirement waivers.

SNAP has been growing at a rapid rate. According to the Associated Press, in 2012 alone SNAP cost $78.4 billion to put 46 million people on food stamps; in 2006, 26 million people received benefits at a cost of $33 billion. Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute notes that as recently as 2000 only 17 million Americans participated in the program at a cost of less than $18 billion.

One of the key issues with SNAP is eligibility. The current income and asset test for SNAP requires recipients to have a gross income below 130 percent of the poverty level and a net income below 100 percent of poverty, without having more than $2,000 in assets. These requirements are much closer to defining people in real need, but many SNAP recipients are accepted under looser standards through “categorical eligibility.” In the states using categorical eligibility for the SNAP program, recipients are determined not by the income and asset limitations established for SNAP itself, but by participation in other cash welfare assistance programs, which can have lesser eligibility standards.

Since states receive additional funding when they increase the number of SNAP beneficiaries, many states have expanded their rolls through other programs. According to the Cato Institute, almost two-thirds of the households receiving SNAP benefits qualify through such programs and were not subject to income and asset tests.

Another problem with SNAP is its lack of any requirements to actively seek employment. Before 2009, recipients were required to work or participate in a work training program in order to receive long-term benefits, but those requirements were waived in many states between 2009 and 2010. As a result, 44 percent of SNAP recipients are neither employed nor actively searching for work.

Reforms should focus on making sure recipients are both truly eligible and actively seeking work.

The following articles examine the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and recent proposals to reform food stamp programs.

Food Stamp Independency
Ross Kaminsky analyzes the first-ever program-wide reduction in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps. Kaminsky criticizes the prominent portrayal of the reduction as a cut and voices his support for the effort, citing the rapid growth of the program and loosening of eligibility standards. 

Seven Reasons to Reform Food Stamps
Writing in The Foundry, T. Elliot Gaiser gives seven reasons why food stamps are in much need of reform. 

The Work vs. Welfare Trade-Off: A Response to Critics
Wiring for Cato @ Liberty, Michael Tanner reports on a new study, “The Work vs. Welfare Trade-Off, 2013: An Analysis of the Total Level of Welfare Benefits by State.” The report shows a family collecting welfare benefits from seven common programs—Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), food stamps, Medicaid, WIC, public housing assistance, utilities assistance (LIHEAP), and free commodities—could receive more than what a minimum wage job would pay in 35 states. 

Research & Commentary: Food Stamp Reform
This Heartland Institute Research & Commentary examines the SNAP program and different possibilities for reform. In the Commentary, Matthew Glans argues reforms ensuring recipients are both truly eligible and actively seeking work are needed: “Both Congress and state legislators should take a closer look at such reforms before SNAP expenditures spiral out of control.” 

Research & Commentary: 2013 Farm Bill Full of Wasteful Subsidies
Logan Pike examines the proposed 2013 Farm Bill and the many subsidies in it. Pike argues lawmakers should consider the needs of both farmers and taxpayers, eliminate the most expensive and indefensible subsidies, and implement market-based reforms. 

The Story on November’s Food Stamp “Cuts”
Rachel Sheffield examines the food stamp “cuts” and notes the reduction is merely the benefit amount returning to the level it would have been without the 2009 stimulus: “In 2009, President Obama’s stimulus package temporarily pumped extra dollars into food stamps in an attempt to stimulate the economy. The temporary increase is now ending. On average, household benefits for those receiving the maximum amount of food stamps will decrease by about 5 percent.” 

The Republican Food Stamp Plan Is a Modest Step in the Right Direction
Michael Tanner examines a Republican proposal to reform food stamps: “Today, roughly 48 million Americans receive SNAP benefits, costing taxpayers more than $82 billion per year. Yet according to the Department of Agriculture, nearly 18 million American households remain ‘food insecure.'” 

Top 10 Reasons Food Stamps Need to be Reformed
Andrew Montgomery of FreedomWorks examines the serious flaws in current food stamp programs: “In recent years, food stamps have grown into a major financial obligation. Enrollment in SNAP has increased dramatically, rising from 26 million in 2007 (one in twelve Americans) to nearly 47 million 2012 (one in seven Americans). Costs have increased dramatically as well, rising from $35 billion in 2007 to $80 billion in 2012, making it the second most expensive means-tested federal welfare program, behind only Medicaid.” 

Food Stamps Don’t Stimulate Economic Growth
Rachel Sheffield and T. Elliot Gaiser of The Heritage Foundation discuss the commonly cited claim food stamps stimulate economic growth. The authors judge this claim to be false: a “growing welfare system is not only bad news for the economy, but bad news for Americans in need. Instead of continuing on this same failed course, Congress should work to ensure that welfare programs like food stamps promote self-sufficiency through work.” 

GOP Food Stamp Bill Will Increase Government Spending
Writing for the Reason Foundation, Ira Stoll argues Republican reforms of the food stamp program would increase government spending.

Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other tax topics, visit The Heartland Institute’s Web site at, Budget & Tax News at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at 

If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Heartland Institute Senior Policy Analyst Matthew Glans at 312/377-4000 or [email protected].