At the intersection of marine conservation and social, economic, environmental and food justice

Monday, August 11, 2014

Food Stamp Bait and Switch

This post comes to us from Joanne Burke, PhD, RD. LD. Dr. Burke is the Thomas W Haas Professor in Sustainable Food Systems in the Sustainability Institute at the University of New Hampshire (UNH).

As advocates for fair wages and access to healthy food, we're more than a little skeptical about Congressman Paul Ryan's (R-WIS) plan to address poverty in America. 

Ryan's pitch includes life coaches for those on assistance. 
Just before the house recessed at the end of July, the House Budget Committee Chairman republican leader (and the former vice-presidential nominee with Mitt Romney) released his plan, which, under the cover of 
Opportunity Grants, proposes combining 11 key safety net programs, leaving the states to determine how the funds will be divided.

Let’s examine just one program identified for inclusion in the Opportunity Grants bundle, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Presently, SNAP is an entitlement program. Anyone who meets the stringent eligibility requirements can be enrolled. For example, in the continental United States, if you were a family of four, and after review of your application and standard deductions, your net annual income was below $23,850 (100% of the Health and Human Services poverty guideline) your family would be deemed eligible to participate. Pretty straightforward. 

SNAP participation in U.S. 2010-2012. Image courtesy of Joanne Burke. 

Under a Block Grant structure however, inclusion in SNAP would be based on arbitrary state based limits: states would be allowed to decide what programs get funding and at what level. Many fisherman and family farm operations have incomes that are low enough that they qualify for SNAP food assistance, but they could be out of luck depending on the amount of funding and potential changes in eligibility based on decisions that will now made at the state level.

Additionally, there are over 47 million Americans classified as working poor . Some earn above the SNAP criteria, but routinely struggle to make ends meet and put food on the table. Ryan's plan doesn't address this level of economic instability and food insecurity

Given that a majority of the 11 programs Ryan proposes to combine involve food and housing assistance, combining funding into one resource will likely lead advocates for decent housing pitted against advocates for adequate food. Historically, the bundling of programs has led to less overall funding for the programs that are put under one funding source. 

The Block Grant structure Ryan proposes has the very real potential of undermining funding for safety net programs that are already inadequate to meet the escalating demands in this country.

It is this escalating demand for assistance that needs to be interrogated and addressed. Rather than Block Grants, we need a comprehensive commitment to economic policies and practices that result in livable wage jobs designed to help address the structural causes of poverty in our country. 

The call is for a comprehensive community approach that invests in people, communities and our collective future. This vision includes jobs and business opportunities that provide equal pay for equal work and incomes that reflect the work performed, not pay based upon race or gender.

Ryan's “Opportunity Grant” is a bait and switch program that provides multiple opportunities to shortchange our most vulnerable Americans and divert efforts to address the root causes of poverty. The tough work ahead is designing strategies that are focused on building an equitable economy and just society. 

The need for the myriad of public assistance programs will naturally decline when more Americans are able to more fully participate in  a more just, robust and equitable economy. 

Joanne Burke, PhD, RD. LD is the Thomas W Haas Professor in Sustainable Food Systems in the Sustainability Institute at the University of New Hampshire (UNH). Her work with UNH Food Solutions New England includes state and regional food system planning and efforts focused on food system justice and equity. She is also Director of the UNH Dietetic Internship in the UNH Nutrition Program.

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