There are plenty of them out there, but with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program’s parent legislation up for renewal this year, it’s time to sort fact from fiction.

By Lauren Phillips
May 25, 2018
Parinda Yatha/EyeEm/Getty Images

You have likely heard of SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service. The Program is renewed every five years as part of the Farm Bill, a federal bill that covers several agricultural and food programs; the current Farm Bill expires this September.

An initial bill proposed by the U.S. House of Representatives—one that sought to cut $17.5 billion in SNAP benefits, according to Robert Campbell, Policy Director at Feeding America, and increase labor burdens on parents, among other changes that will negatively impact millions of individuals—failed to pass, but new Farm Bills will be proposed, debated, and voted on in the House and Senate over the coming months as the September deadline nears.

With the renewal process will come news coverage and a wave of misinformation about SNAP. Many people believe SNAP is a handout or welfare program; some think it doesn’t provide enough aid, and still others don’t know enough about it to have an opinion either way. Whether you know nothing about SNAP, you’re a current or former recipient, or you know a tiny bit about it from news snippets, here are four popular myths about SNAP—and the facts that prove them wrong.

Myth #1: SNAP recipients don’t want to work.

SNAP is commonly known for its food stamp roots. Benefits, now loaded onto a specialized, debit-style card rather than distributed through actual food stamps, helped more than 42 million Americans (almost 13 percent of the country’s total population) purchase food in 2017. The majority of SNAP participants (nearly two-thirds, according to the USDA) are children, the elderly, or people with disabilities, as of fiscal year 2015.

Hard-working individuals—even those working 40-plus hours a week—may not be able to make ends meet and provide enough food for themselves and their families if they aren’t making a living wage. (More than half of working-age, non-disabled adults residing in households receiving SNAP work, according to Feeding America.) If they meet income requirements, they may receive SNAP benefits, though they’re not always enough.

“There’s still this idea that, if [people receiving SNAP benefits] just pulled up their bootstraps and went out and got a job, everything would be okay. That’s just not the case,” said Sarah Ormbrek, a former SNAP recipient who is now a Community Relations Director at a food bank in Ohio. Ormbrek received SNAP benefits for many years as a single mother raising a son; they allowed her to ensure there was food on the table if she was between jobs or working but still not earning a living wage.

Many SNAP recipients turn to the program when they are between jobs—more than 80 percent of these workers work in the year before or after receiving benefits. And, as recipients must reapply for SNAP at regular intervals, many households stop receiving benefits soon after they no longer meet the program’s requirements.

Myth #2: SNAP completely covers a household’s food costs.

“The program was designed with the assumption that it’s supplemental,” Campbell said. “But what we know in reality, and certainly from many of those we work with, [is] that it often isn’t enough.”

The average benefit per individual is $125.80 per month, which national hunger relief organization Feeding America breaks down to about $4.20 per day or $1.40 per meal. (Benefit amounts are determined by a number of factors, including income in relation to the poverty line.)

For context, according to the USDA, a basic, nutritionally adequate diet costs, on average, at least $163.20 per month for a woman aged 19-50. For men, the number is $184.10. SNAP is, as its name implies, intended to be supplemental to other sources of food and income

Myth #3: SNAP is bad for communities.

Beyond what it does for individuals, SNAP provides economic benefits to communities as a whole. Feeding America estimates that every $1 of SNAP assistance generates $1.79 of activity for a local economy. Think about it: An increased proportion of people buying food, rather than turning to food banks, shelters, or other charitable sources, means more money is circulating through a local economy in productive ways.

“A lot of the people who rely on the SNAP program live in rural areas,” said Kate Leone, SVP for Government Relations at Feeding America. “Many local grocers and local supermarkets depend on this stream [of income].”

In 2017, SNAP distributed almost $64 billion worth of benefits, the least since 2009. The federal program as a whole is incredibly efficient: The vast majority of the total federal cost of SNAP goes toward actual benefits, with only 6 percent going to administrative expenses and other costs. And real instances of fraud are few and far between, as the program has one of the most rigorous quality control systems of any federal public benefit program, according to Feeding America.

Myth #4: Charities can replace the aid SNAP provides.

The enormous benefits SNAP provides—from food to economic stimulation—is something no non-governmental entity can match. Feeding America, the third largest charity in the country, has a fraction of the reach; its network of food banks and meal programs often aids people who either don’t qualify for SNAP but still do not make a living wage or people who, even with the help of SNAP benefits, are unable to obtain a nutritionally adequate diet.

“We have 200 food banks in our network, and we have 60,000 meal programs and pantries, and we provide as an organization more than 4 billion meals annually,” said Heather Janik, Director of Thought Leadership & Media Relations at Feeding America. “When you compare that to the SNAP program, for every meal that Feeding America provides, the SNAP program provides 12.”

For all these reasons—and many more—proposed cuts or changes to SNAP could have disastrous effects. Any redistribution of funds away from actual benefits means fewer people are able to put food on the table, and the charitable sector is not capable of taking on that cost. When it comes to decreasing food insecurity and reducing hunger across the country, this major federal program offers opportunities for people and families to escape hunger, if not permanently then at least temporarily, that smaller entities are unable to duplicate.

“I don’t know where I would be today if I hadn’t had SNAP when I needed it,” Ormbrek says. While she no longer receives SNAP benefits, Ormbrek emphasizes the importance (and efficiency) of the program.

You can help ensure SNAP assists as many American citizens as possible by contacting your representatives to tell them how you feel about reducing food insecurity and urge them to protect this vital supplemental assistance program. You can also donate to your local food bank to help families struggling with food insecurity in your community: See what you can and should donate here.

Real Simple is proud to partner with Walmart, Nextdoor, Feeding America, and Neighbor’s Table to encourage conversations about food insecurity—and other local challenges—in communities across the country. Read more about these dinners and block parties here.

You can learn more about SNAP, including who and how it helps, on Feeding America’s site.

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