The food stamp program, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), receives quite a bit of criticism. Some feel the program uses too many taxpayer dollars. Others complain that too many people receive food stamps who don't deserve them. However, those in favor of SNAP feel the program serves those in need and that many families would go hungry without it. Some supporters believe the program stimulates the economy as well.
Benefits of Food Stamps
Households often spend as much as $1,300 a month for food. With SNAP, over 22 million households get some relief by supplementing this expense through a SNAP allotment. These benefits go to families that are considered food insecure and at risk of not being able to provide food to their members. After people start receiving SNAP this risk is reduced, meaning that SNAP helps bridge the gap between the need for food and the ability to purchase it. Supporters of SNAP argue the program makes food more readily available to millions in need.
Using SNAP benefits also seems to stimulate the economy. Each dollar spent in food assistance stimulates the economy by adding $1.73 in economic activity. Supporters of SNAP argue that this increase in economic activity outweighs the billions of dollars spent on funding the SNAP program. SNAP dollars are spent in the community. Nobody holds on to this benefit because food is so desperately needed. Spending stimulates business, which is further evidence SNAP expenditures add to the economy.
The program also emphasizes the benefits of healthy eating. While recipients can choose to eat unhealthy foods that is largely because banning things such as soda and candy would take congressional approval, require greater oversight and be too costly. However, other positive steps can promote healthier diets for those receiving SNAP benefits.
The USDA provides grants to large and small programs across the country that can help get healthy food to SNAP recipients. As a result, recipients can get subsidies to purchase produce at farmer's markets or other locations selling organic, locally-sources foods. Many view this as a giant step forward to promoting health eating.
Proponents of the food stamp program also point out that qualifying for SNAP benefits automatically makes recipients eligible for other benefit programs, such as free school lunches and assistance in paying utility bills, further helping those in need.
The Downside of Food Stamps
Despite the benefits of SNAP, and the apparent need for the program, there is a social stigma attached to receiving such aid. Recipients sometimes are labeled as lazy and having a poor work ethic. Some experts believe this shames many people into trying to hide their SNAP benefits or not applying to see if they qualify. Many public assistance recipients are embarrassed to receive help. To help dispel the stigma, advocates urge people to stop viewing SNAP as a welfare program and start viewing it as a nutritional program.
Fraud is another concern brought up by opponents of the program. Some store owners have been charged with underground trafficking, where they accept bribes from SNAP recipients so the recipients can use their benefits to purchase forbidden items such as gas or liquor. Due to these underground transactions, SNAP loses 1.3 percent of funding to fraud. While this might seem like a small number, it equates to a $3 billion annual loss. This is in addition to beneficiaries who may lie to get benefits. In total, given the trafficking, deceitful applicants and government errors, the program loses about 4 percent of its funding yearly, resulting in a multi-billion dollar loss and, according to those opposed to food stamps, a waste of taxpayer money.
Another perceived problem with the program is the recipients' limited purchasing power. While SNAP beneficiaries appreciate the opportunity to buy eligible food items (which includes things like bread, cereal, fruit, vegetables, meat, dairy products and non-alcoholic beverages), many would like to purchase other needed essentials such as diapers, soap, paper products and hygiene items, none of which is covered by the program. Qualifying for the program already indicates a family's financial hardship. Not being able to purchase these essential items leaves a gap in the ability of recipients are to provide their families with much needed non-food items.
In addition, purchasing hot foods, foods designed for consumption on store premises and meals in restaurants only are approved in limited geographic areas, making it hard for homeless and some disabled citizens to eat because they can't cook. Some shelters and soup kitchens accept SNAP benefits as well, but the USDA must first approve these facilities to take the payments. There's no guarantee that a shelter has signed up for this system.
The USDA has launched a Restaurant Meals Program that allows restaurants to accept SNAP benefits as payment from certain recipients who cannot cook and store food. Only Arizona, Michigan and California currently participate in this initiative though. Another potential problem is that some lawmakers are pushing for cuts to SNAP funding that may eliminate such initiatives.
Michelle Dwyer is a U.S. Army veteran writing fiction and nonfiction since 2003. She specializes in business, careers, leadership, military affairs and organizational change and behavior. Dwyer received an MBA from Tarleton State University/Texas A&M Central Texas and an MFA in creative writing from National University in La Jolla, Calif.