On November 1, 2013, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits were cut following the expiration of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. These cuts mean that nearly 48 million SNAP recipients nationally—mostly households with children, seniors, and people who are disabled—will have less money for food purchases. For American Indians in the United States, the effects of SNAP cuts will be especially brutal, snatching millions of dollars in money for food purchases directly from the mouths of American Indian families, children and seniors.
Born in the 1960s during Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, the national Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formally called the Food Stamp Program, has become the largest social safety net in the fight against
malnourishment and hunger in the United States. Largely targeted toward assisting low-income and no-income people, SNAP benefits have become a valuable social program to help meet the nutritional and hunger needs of the most vulnerable in our society. Today, SNAP has become a political tool in a game of political polarization where the most vulnerable are likely to feel the most significant brunt.
In 2010, 24 percent of all American Indian households in the United States received SNAP benefits, compared to roughly 13 percent of all U.S. households. Even with SNAP benefits to assist households, research by Erin Shirl of the University of Arkansas has noted that over 51 percent of SNAP beneficiaries are still food insecure, meaning they have limited or uncertain availability to nutritionally acceptable and safe foods needed maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Even though a large percentage of American Indians receive SNAP benefits, current data suggests that a large percentage of American Indians are food insecure. The nationwide food insecurity average for all American Indian adults, not just SNAP beneficiaries, is one in four—meaning one in every four American Indians is food insecure. Moreover, current data suggests that one in three American Indian children are food insecure. In total, roughly 22 percent of American Indians do not have sufficient food maintain healthy lives.
Even more astonishing, current statistics note that one in 10 American Indian households experience outright hunger, which goes well beyond limited or difficult access to food. These households go hungry because they simply cannot afford to eat. Not surprisingly, according to the USDA’s food desert locator, almost every American Indian reservation is classified as a “food desert,” meaning that access to affordable and quality healthy food is extremely difficult. What all these data suggest is that the potential SNAP cuts for Indian country will run deep and have significant impacts on access to food for those already vulnerable and susceptible to food insecurity and outright hunger.
Food has always taken center stage in the historical pageantry and narrative between American Indians and non-Indians. Be it the historical pomp surrounding the first Thanksgiving, George Washington ordering the slashing and burning of thousands of acres of Iroquois corn, or purposeful destruction of Apache and Pueblo fields and orchards in the Southwest, food has always been a mechanism to force American Indian reliance and dependency on the federal government. In fact, food was one of the central drivers in U.S.-Indian treaty formation, with many treaties stating a negotiation for peace and food. In fact, the very first treaty between the United States and the Delaware Tribe in 1778 was for the passage of U.S. troops through Delaware territory and for corn, meat and horses. Today, food reliance and dependency has borne out in extreme poverty, unemployment, food insecurity and, in some cases, outright hunger for American Indians. Now, because of inaction in Congress, American Indian families will see even greater cuts in extremely needed social benefits.
The American political and consumer economy has severely eroded the value of food, and SNAP is a great gauge of the government’s value of food for the average American family. Current estimates note that, on average, SNAP cuts will cost a household of three (e.g., a mother with two children) roughly $29 a month or about $319 for the next 11 months. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities noted that this cut is equivalent to cutting about 16 meals a month for a family of three as predicted by the USDA’s “Thrifty Food Plan.” In total, families will be left with roughly $1.40 per person per meal, (about $4.20 to spend on a full meal for a family of three). In Indian country, where the price of food is already higher than in urban areas and where the cost of traveling to food centers put additional expenses on food, these cuts will have exponential effects on already vulnerable Indian families and seniors. For example, while the average cost of a gallon of milk is $3.50 in a typical American city, on reservations in New Mexico the cost is $4.95 and over $10 in Alaska Native communities. Thus, these significant cuts are likely to lead to even greater rates of food insecurity and outright hunger in Indian country.
How cost-effective are SNAP cuts? It is reported that SNAP cuts will save the federal government nearly $5 billion. However, an increasing body of research has documented the strong relationship between income, diet and poor health outcomes. Research by P. Peter Basiotis and others has shown that individuals with diminishing incomes tend to increase consumption of low-cost, more energy-dense foods with higher calories that are often composed of refined grains, added sugars or fats to maintain energy. In a similar vein, research by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey has noted that food insecurity and obesity rates are strongly linked. On average, the National Institutes of Health reports that obese individuals pay $1,723 more a year in health care costs than an average-weight person.
Therefore, while SNAP is purporting to save money by decreasing payments to SNAP recipients, food insecurity will likely increase, and so will negative health outcomes like obesity, thereby increasing health care costs for SNAP recipients. Most SNAP participants are already on some form of publicly-funded health care such as Medicaid. For American Indians, most of those health care costs will be fronted through the Public Health Service, also a U.S. government entity. So one has to ask, is the government really saving money with SNAP cuts? Or is the flow of money merely being diverted from the pocketbooks of the poor to others like the medical industry.
A good measure of the effectiveness of any government is the extent to which they are able to care for the most vulnerable within their society. SNAP cuts suggest that the poor will once again be at the losing end of government ineffectiveness, where cuts will take food directly out of the mouths of vulnerable children, families and seniors. In Indian country, where unemployment and poverty rates are significantly greater than in most urban areas, SNAP cuts will greatly increase both near- and long-term economic and health consequences. It is time for both Congress and tribal governments to focus on developing more long-term and sustainable solutions to issues of hunger and food insecurity among poor Native families. Until they do, the most vulnerable of our society will continue to be on the losing end of government inaction.
Raymond Foxworth (Navajo) is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Colorado at Boulder, specializing in areas of development and political economy. He also works on issues of food-system control in Indian country as senior research and program officer with First Nations Development Institute in Longmont, Colorado. A-dae Vena Romero (Cochiti Pueblo/Kiowa) is a LLM candidate at the University of Arkansas College of Law’s Food and Agricultural Law Program through the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative. She is also co-founder and executive director of Cochiti Youth Experience, Inc., a nonprofit organization founded to create opportunities for Cochiti youth to engage in traditional Pueblo farming.