President Donald Trump’s budget for fiscal year 2019 proposes reducing funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by about $213.5 billion over 10 years. The reduction would be contingent on Congress enacting specified reforms of the nation’s chief food assistance program. The administration’s proposal, should those legislative reforms be enacted now, would translate to a $17.2 billion reduction in SNAP spending in fiscal year 2019 alone, according to the administration.
Absent such legislative reforms, which may not pass muster in this Congress, the U.S. Department of Agriculture requested budget authority for spending on SNAP in fiscal 2019 at $73.2 billion, down nearly $400 million from $73.6 billion as the 2018 spending estimate. Spending on SNAP in fiscal 2017 was $78.5 billion.
The U.S.D.A.’s lower budget authority request for SNAP in the upcoming fiscal year primarily was based on expectations that 40.8 million persons per month would receive benefits in fiscal year 2019 compared with a projected 42.2 million participants each month in the current fiscal year.
But as indicated, the administration proposed an overhaul of SNAP, not simply a lower budget authority for the coming year, and this initiative encountered pushback from anti-hunger activists and sectors of the food industry.
The most controversial new reform proposal contained in the president’s budget would combine the use of traditional Electronic Benefit Transfer (E.B.T.) cards with direct delivery to recipients of U.S.D.A. food boxes containing “100% American-grown products,” in the form of nonperishable items such as shelf-stable milk, ready-to-eat cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans and canned fruit and vegetables.
According to an analysis of the administration’s “Harvest Box” proposal, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities noted, “Instead of letting households that receive more than $90 a month continue to use their SNAP benefit to buy food at their local grocery store, the agriculture department would hold back an estimated $24 billion to $29 billion per year in household benefits (about 40% of the benefits issued to such households).” The center said the U.S.D.A. would use about half the withheld funds — $130 billion over 10 years, or about 20% of all SNAP benefits — to purchase food and deliver Harvest Boxes directly to households. The center said the other half of the held-back funds would be cut, thus representing a sizable portion of the administration’s projected 10-year SNAP savings.
The administration’s budget also includes previous proposals to reduce SNAP funding by about $85 billion over 10 years by narrowing eligibility and imposing more stringent work requirements.
The Harvest Box proposal seemed to have no champion in Congress at this point but was another indicator of the administration’s intent to sharply reduce SNAP spending. The Congress already was debating proposals on eligibility and work requirements.
Jim Weill, president, Food Research and Action Center, said the proposed $213 billion reduction in spending on SNAP over 10 years could “only be accomplished by cutting out of the program entirely, or reducing assistance sharply for, tens of millions of seniors, children, people with disabilities, working families, unemployed people and veterans.”
Mr. Weill said the administration’s Harvest Box proposal would be “administratively costly, inefficient, stigmatizing and prone to failure, and that will return the country to Depression-era anti-hunger approaches.”
Mr. Weill added, “The proposal also undercuts its own purported rationales and strategies by eliminating the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, which provides food boxes to seniors, and eliminating SNAP nutrition education funding.”
Jennifer Hatcher, chief public policy officer, Food Marketing Institute (F.M.I.), said, “The section in the president’s 2019 budget entitled ‘Reforming the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)’ certainly makes major changes, but not changes that SNAP-authorized food retailers see as positive or even efficient.
“F.M.I. and our members have worked with the House and Senate agriculture committees and the U.S.D.A. over several decades to achieve a national system, utilizing existing commercial infrastructure and technology, to achieve the greatest efficiency, availability and lowest cost,” Ms. Hatcher said. “As we understand the proposal in the president’s budget to create a U.S.D.A. commodity foods box of staples, each of these achievements would be lost.
“Perhaps this proposal would save money in one account, but based on our decades of experience in the program, it would increase costs in other areas that would negate any savings. As the private partners with the government ensuring efficient redemption of SNAP benefits, retailers are looking to the administration to reduce red tape and regulations, not increase them with proposals such as this one.”