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Will Tweaking the Food Stamp Program Save It?

A Brookings report takes the "mend it, don't end it" approach to the embattled SNAP program.
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The Hamilton Project, a research effort within Washington, D.C.'s Brookings Institution, has just published a series of suggestions for updating the embattled Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), popularly called food stamps. One in eight Americans receives assistance under SNAP, they found. The program has faced a series of well-publicized cuts, many executed during negotiations of the Farm Bill, the country's key legislation affecting food production and subsidies.

A family with two earners pulling eight-hour shifts is likely to opt for the microwaved dinner more often than not, even if a fresh salad makes more sense economically and medically.

The Hamilton research, written by economist Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, argues that the 50-year-old program is fundamentally sound but needs an update. The report points out, for example, that original SNAP guidelines assumed a single-income family, with one person homemaking, likely a woman. Though a wife or mother may have needed help buying ingredients like butter or milk, she maintained a daily schedule that allowed her to "primarily cook meals from scratch," or at least the government assumed so when writing the law.

"Although this time-use assumption may have been defensible in the early days of the program, today more women are in the labor force and more SNAP recipients are employed," Schanzenback writes, "leaving them with less time for food preparation and the need to purchase more-expensive prepared foods." For better or worse, a family with two earners pulling eight-hour shifts, at minimum wage, is likely to opt for the microwaved dinner more often than not, even if a fresh salad makes more sense economically and medically.

Recognizing that likelihood isn't the same as accepting it, the report suggests adding financial incentives for SNAP recipients to buy fresh food rather than prepared meals. A program in Massachusetts, called the Healthy Incentives Pilot, tested a version of the plan by offering a 30-cent rebate to participants for every dollar they spent on "a narrowly defined group of fruits and vegetables." According to the Hamilton assessment, consumption of the fruits and vegetables on the list went up 25 percent. They recommend taking the idea national, at a predicted cost of $45 dollars per SNAP recipient, a not-inconsiderable additional cost of about $850 million annually.

The hypothetical—if partial—offset to the additional cost would be lowering medical bills associated with poor diets, and particularly prepared foods—that's obesity and diabetes, among others. In theory, better health would also decrease missed work days, and increase earnings among SNAP enrollees, ideally leading to a reduction of dependence on public assistance in the long run.

But, yeah, it's a lot of money any way you slice it. The Hamilton report claims that even without those incentives in place, the average SNAP-subsidized meal costs only $1.40. It also calculates that every five dollars spent in food stamps generates about nine dollars in economic activity along the supply chain for groceries.

About half of SNAP enrollees are children, according to the report.