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New Research Shows SNAP Recipients Are a Benefit to—Not a Drain on—Rural Economies

The roughly 40 million Americans who use food assistance programs are also helping to create jobs.
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Vegetables are displayed at a supermarket.

Cuts to SNAP could decrease low-income Americans' access to fresh fruit and vegetables.

Over the last year, the Trump administration has proposed cutting the budget for food assistance, implementing work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents, and denying benefits to parents who don't pay child support.

For most of these policies, the official line has been that low-income people who rely on public-benefit programs are a drain on the country's resources. Just last week, the White House published a memo asking states to enforce rules that make it more difficult for immigrants applying for a green card to receive government assistance, claiming that "rampant welfare abuse by non-citizens is straining the social safety net." Other policy announcements have emphasized "self-sufficiency" among the country's poorest citizens.

Aside from the obvious inaccuracies—immigrants use benefits less than native-born citizens; most Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program participants are working—there's also new evidence that spending on programs like the ones President Donald Trump wants to cut or restrict can benefit, not harm, the economy.

A report published this week by the United States Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service found that increased spending on SNAP under President Barack Obama created more jobs in rural counties. It's the first county-level analysis of the program's economic effects, and the results are conclusive: After the Obama administration nearly quadrupled SNAP payments, recipients' spending at grocery stores helped boost employment.

Increased SNAP Spending Benefited Rural Economies

While participation in other food assistance programs—like the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children—has been declining for years, SNAP participation tripled from 2000 to 2013. The new report gives a couple of reasons for this increase: The Great Recession drove more people into unemployment and poverty, federal and state programs promoted participation, and Obama's stimulus package increased the maximum monthly SNAP payment for a family of four by $80.

In the poorest counties, many of which are rural, the $150 each SNAP family receives on average to buy groceries every month goes a long way: The increase in spending during the Obama administration rippled through rural economies, benefiting the retail, wholesale, and transportation sectors. For every extra $10,000 redeemed in a store that accepts SNAP, the spillover effects in rural counties amounted to one additional job—an impact that's "greater than the impacts of all federal government spending combined," the report found.

The Trump Administration's Changes Would Do the Opposite

Overall, the ERS's findings suggest that SNAP is not only an effective way to reduce food insecurity, but the program also acts like its own stimulus package. So what would would it mean to cut funds for this program or pursue policies that reduce participation?

Congressional Budget Office analysis found the president's proposed work requirements would decrease SNAP spending by $40 billion in the next 10 years. Another report from a progressive think tank, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, predicted these cuts would decrease poor Americans' access to fresh fruit and vegetables and harm SNAP retailers, 80 percent of which are small grocery stores. Ultimately, the analysts wrote last year, these cuts would be "unprecedented and would put families' basic food security at risk."

Of course, the most direct effect would be on the more than 40 million low-income Americans who rely on SNAP to feed their families. According to many experts and advocates tracking Trump's recent policies, these restrictions undermine the purpose of the program. "The White House is running a one-way ratchet squeezing the poor [out of government assistance] by changing the rules in program after program," says Jim Weill, president of the food security non-profit Food Research & Action Center.