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By Rose Hoban
Last week, President Donald Trump unveiled his first federal budget since taking office in January. While Trump’s budget made cuts to discretionary programs in the U.S. Department of Agriculture and to other programs, such as Meals on Wheels, that affect the poor, his budget left the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, intact.
In North Carolina, SNAP provides monthly assistance to low income people that they can use to buy food. Rather than being actual coupons, as the vouchers were in the past, people who are eligible for the SNAP benefits get an electronic benefit transfer card that looks like a bank debit card.
North Carolinians received about $2.5 billion in SNAP benefits in the last fiscal year according to Deb Landry, a staffer with the legislative Fiscal Research Division.
Landry told the Joint Health and Human Services Appropriations Committee on Tuesday morning that during that time, an average of 761,999 households received SNAP each month, with a benefit total of about $187.40.
The monthly total can fluctuate pretty dramatically. In October 2015, 1,647,808 individuals received SNAP benefits. By January of this year, that number was down to 1,470,862.
One reason for the decline from the end of 2015 to the present was a change in rules around SNAP assistance that went into effect in January 2016. That was when unemployed “able-bodied adults” without dependents lost benefits in 23 counties.
Usually, those adults who are not disabled, who don’t have children and don’t have another type of exemption, such as being in school, are only able to receive SNAP benefits for three months out of every three years. But during the economic downturn in 2009, the Obama administration waived those requirements. And as the economy improved, states and counties where unemployment was higher than the national average were allowed to apply for waivers to continue getting enhanced benefits.
“There was a 75 percent growth in the Food and Nutrition Service caseload in North Carolina between 2008 and 2013, that was the Great Recession,” said Wayne Black, head of the Division of Social Services in the Department of Health and Human Services.
In late 2015, the General Assembly told DHHS to stop applying for those waivers. In 23 of the state’s largest counties, the waivers expired last January. The rest of the state lost enhanced SNAP benefits in July.
“The waivers ended in some of the bigger counties first,” Landry said. “But they had the majority of the population receiving benefits.”
Black also said there’s been a decline in the number of recipients because the economy is slowly improving and more people are getting back to work.
North Carolina SNAP recipients by Congressional district. Click on an area to see details. Data courtesy: USDA
After Hurricane Matthew, an additional 100,000 households in 45 counties received disaster SNAP benefits, Landry told the committee. The average amount received by those households was $393 to replace food lost and spoiled as a result of the storm, as well as to supplement for people’s lost incomes.
“Between replacement, supplemental and new recipients, $89.7 million in disaster Food and Nutrition Services was provided after the hurricane,” Landry said.
What people ate
A study published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in November gave the first look ever at what people who use SNAP buy.
It turns out people using the benefits eat pretty much like everyone else in the United States, including buying a good amount of junk foods such as sweetened beverages, chips and prepared desserts.
About 40 cents of every dollar went to basics like bread, milk, meat, eggs, fruits and vegetables for both SNAP and non-SNAP households. The top vegetable for both kinds of households were potatoes, and the top meat for both was ground beef.
About 20 cents of every dollar went to sodas and salty snacks, compared to about 18 cents for non-SNAP households.
“It’s disappointing in both SNAP households and households with incomes well above SNAP [levels] that as Americans we don’t adequately follow the dietary guidelines,” USDA official Kevin Concannon said in an interview with the Huffington Post.
But SNAP households spent a notably larger share—about 15 percentage points more than non- SNAP households—on infant formulas and baby foods than non-SNAP households.
As far back as 1997, and up to now, legislators have proposed restricting SNAP benefits to only “healthy” foods. But the agency stated in a position paper published in 2007 that “there are
serious problems with the rationale, feasibility and potential effectiveness of this proposal.”
For starters, there’s no agreed upon standard of what constitutes a “healthy food.” The document also points out there are more than 300,000 food items on the market and enforcement of what constitutes a healthy choice would often rest with check out employees.