By NASW Director Public Policy Sarah Christa Butts, LMSW
Given the social work professions’ values and primary mission to enhance human wellbeing and help meet basic human needs, especially of people who are vulnerable and living in poverty, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) strongly opposes rule changes to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that would eliminate benefits for 3.1 million individuals—and punish people with even meager savings.
By the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) own estimates, the proposed rule would cut SNAP benefits over five years by $10.543 billion, while increasing SNAP administrative costs by $2.314 billion. Furthermore, USDA concedes, “The proposed rule may also negatively impact food security and reduce the savings rates among those individuals who do not meet the income and resource eligibility requirements for SNAP or the substantial and ongoing requirements for expanded categorical eligibility.”
SNAP is an anti-poverty program which plays a critical role in addressing hunger and food insecurity across the U.S. It is the first line of defense against hunger for low-income residents, including older adults, people with disabilities and children. Notably, half of all SNAP recipients are children, according to Feeding America. In 2017, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimated that 42 million Americans nationwide received SNAP benefits, which is roughly 13 percent of the U.S. population, who are poor.
NASW recognizes that the proposed changes will cause harm and hardship to individuals, including children and families, and negatively impact communities and our nation, by exacerbating hunger and food insecurity.
Making individuals and families ineligible for SNAP will result in hunger, and suffering, as well as negative health impacts. Social workers interact daily with individuals and families who rely on SNAP benefits to maintain their household. Our experience indicates that food insecurity and poverty are real issues facing clients. According to the USDA, in 2017, an estimated one in eight Americans were food insecure, equating to 40 million Americans including more than 12 million children. What’s more, during that same year, 5.5 million adults 60 years or older in the United States experienced food insecurity, Feeding America reports.
The food security and health implications of the proposed rule are serious and disturbing. Food insecurity has direct and indirect impacts on physical and mental health for people of all ages. Food insecurity — and even marginal food security (a less severe level of food insecurity)— is especially detrimental to the health, development, and well-being of infants, children, and adolescents.
A loss or reduction in SNAP benefits has detrimental impacts on children and their families. Children in households that participate in SNAP are directly certified for free school meals. Research documents the important role that school meals play in health, development and learning.
Proposals that would undermine Categorical Eligibility (Cat El) can be expected to entail impacts on access to free school lunches. For example, during congressional consideration of 2018 Farm Bill proposals that would undermine Cat El, the Congressional Budget Office provided estimates of the numbers of children who would lose school meals as a result of the policy change. CBO estimated “that in an average year, about 400,000 households would lose SNAP eligibility as a result of the change to the gross income threshold. There would be an additional effect on children who are categorically eligible for free meals at school because of their eligibility for SNAP.”
The proposed rule also falls heavily on households with older adults. More than 600,000 SNAP households with members over age 60 (some 13.2 percent of all SNAP households with older adults) would be cut from SNAP food assistance, according to USDA’s estimates of the effect of the proposed rule. This represents more than one-third of the 1.7 million households the Administration estimates would lose SNAP.
Some 71 million people in the United States are age 60 and older. Many live on fixed incomes and have limited financial means to afford expenses such as food, health, and housing costs. Many have disabilities and multiple chronic conditions. Amid these challenges, older adults commonly care for spouses, partners, children, grandchildren, and other relatives. Unfortunately, food insecurity among older adults is all too common a problem. In 2017, nearly 8 percent (5.5 million) of adults 60 years or older were food insecure; of this group, more than 3 percent (2.2 million) were very low food insecure. These percentages reflect increases of 45 and 129 percent, respectively, since 2001. Households with grandchildren are twice as likely to be food insecure, according to a report, “The State of Senior Hunger in America in 2017,” by Ziliak, J. P., & Gundersen, C.
Research indicates that food-insecure older adults have less nutritious diets, have worse health outcomes, and are at higher risk for depression than food-secure older adults. Compared to other adult age groups, older adults are particularly vulnerable to the health consequences of food insecurity. SNAP benefits help to alleviate these adverse conditions.
For these older adults, SNAP plays an important role. While it provides a modest benefit, just $125 a month on average for households with members age 60 or older, it enables them to meet their basic food needs. Moreover, if older adults’ access to SNAP were restricted, systemic health care costs would likely increase; according to one estimate, disease-associated malnutrition in older adults already costs $51.3 billion each year, according to Journal of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition.
The proposed rule would gut states’ options to eliminate SNAP asset tests and use a higher income test to serve more working households that have significant expenses for shelter and childcare. The current policy option is known as “Broad-Based Categorical Eligibility.”
Cat El policies have been in place for more than two decades. Congress rejected efforts to gut Cat El, including during its consideration of 2005 budget reconciliation and the 2018 Farm Bill. This USDA rulemaking is an attempt to sidestep Congress and is outside USDA’s authority.
NASW strongly oppose the proposed rule that would cut food benefits for struggling people and harm our community and urge you to rescind the proposed rule.