By Daisy Ni (PO ’21)
The United States’ food stamp program—the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—extends back to the era of the Great Depression, and provides food security to over 45 million people in the country today. The budget proposal President Trump handed to Congress indicates his intentions to overhaul SNAP by cutting the program’s budget by $17 billion dollars by 2019. Overall, the program would be defunded $213 billion over the next decade. SNAP allows eligible low-income individuals to receive money loaded onto an electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card to buy food at local marketplaces. As such, individuals are allowed the freedom to choose the products they want and require for their family. Under Trump’s proposals, SNAP recipients receiving at least $90 per month—about 81 percent of all beneficiaries—would receive half of their benefits in the form of a “Harvest Box,” instead. Such boxes would contain nonperishable items predetermined by the government. Food advocacy groups have raised concerns regarding both the operational logistics of this new system as well as the overall rationales behind the proposal.
The administration justifies the overhaul with assumptions of reduced costs, arguing that the new Harvest Box Program will allow the government to buy food items from wholesale suppliers and skip the intermediary costs of retail. The rest of the saved costs are from restricting eligibility for the program: the budget proposals would cut an estimated four million people from SNAP by eliminating states’ flexibility to grant individualized cases of entry.
In order to evaluate the rationales for the budget proposal, one must compare the Harvest Box Program to the system it replaces. The EBT system was originally implemented to improve efficiency, and any reduction of its usage—as Trump’s proposal calls for—seems unnecessary and regressive. Prior to the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which mandated states to implement EBT systems, the American food stamp system was, in fact, rooted in physical coupons redeemed at stores. The entire purpose of EBT was to “eliminate the cumbersome processes required by the paper food stamp system.” For example, EBT cut back on fraud by creating an electronic record of each food stamp transaction. This process made it easier to identify and document instances where food benefits were being exchanged for non-food items, reducing the SNAP trafficking rate to 1.5 percent today. Additionally, the federal EBT task force, established as part of the National Performance Review in 1993 to assess the feasibility of a national EBT program, concluded that EBT would reduce costs to SNAP recipients and retailers. Collecting the physical copies of food stamps required participants to incur cost in terms of time and money, as well as an increased burden if the food stamps were stolen—theft particularly served as a pertinent danger that EBT resolved. Furthermore, EBT was created to save the government money in administrative costs in printing and delivering coupons—the Food and Nutrition Service of the USDA reported that the government spent $45 million dollars in 1997 printing, mailing, and destroying food coupons alone, administrative costs that will return and likely increase with a delivery program of Harvest Boxes. As such, the new budget proposal brings back issues from the pre-EBT era that EBT was designed to resolve.
Groups have also raised questions regarding the operational details of the proposed Harvest Box program. The program strips away recipients’ freedom of choice to account for the variety of specialized diets for religious, cultural, or allergic purposes. Furthermore, the Harvest Box Program would necessitate a functional capacity and infrastructure on a grander scale than currently exists. The federal government has left states in charge of their own methods for delivery of the boxes to better tailor their programs to their own geographical differences; however, questions remain as to the steps involved in distribution—for example, how would the government ensure that boxes are delivered to recipients in an efficient manner, especially when delivering to rural areas? The dependence upon physical forms of distribution imbeds the system with elements of unreliability in comparison to the current EBT program that could distribute benefits immediately to cardholders. The physicality of receiving a Harvest Box increases the visibility of those receiving benefits from SNAP, which could exacerbate the stigmatization that recipients already face.
The cuts for SNAP stand as part of Trump’s larger agenda regarding welfare programs. While in office, he has repeatedly articulated the need for welfare reform, implying that many recipients are abusing and exploiting the current system. His comments are realized in the budget proposal, which has reduced funding for other safety net programs including federal housing subsidies and Medicaid. Ultimately, Trump’s budget contains radical reforms that may decrease the chances of it receiving Congressional approval. It does, however, grant the nation insights into the priorities of the administration, raising concerns regarding the well-being and future of low-income populations in need of an expanding, not shrinking, social safety net.