The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) has had measurable impact on reducing food insecurity as well as a meaningful impact on alleviating poverty, particularly in rural areas. With these impacts well-documented, the proposed $190 million in federal budget cuts to SNAP over a 10-year period is something difficult to imagine and hard to dissect.
But even harder to imagine is that the SNAP budget is approximately three-fourths of the farm bill budget (Farm Bill budget stands at $489 billion while SNAP is approximately 80 percent of that number). When discussing the farm bill and its implications for Indian country, SNAP is a hefty part of a conversation that is becoming more-lively each day. While the likelihood of the cuts passing and becoming law is uncertain, tribal nations need to be aware of what is at stake. According Indian Country Today Media Network’s 2014 article, SNAP in 2008 served an average of 540,000 low-income people who identified as American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) alone and 260,000 who identified as AI/AN and white per month. The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) says that 20 percent of AI/AN households receive food stamps compared to 14 percent nationally. Here’s what the proposed cuts would mean to Indian country:
The proposed cuts come in two broad reforms: (1) raising the state contribution share and (2) establishing national work requirements and limiting eligibility. Each reform is intended to reduce the number of people currently utilizing the program.
Transitioning SNAP Financial Burden to State Financial Responsibility
Currently, SNAP is a federal entitlement program that has eligibility requirements clearly spelled out across the board. It works with other child/senior nutrition programs, like school meals and the Women, Infants and Children or WIC to ensure that those who are hungry have resources for food. The proposed reform would transition SNAP into a state block grant. A block grant is a large sum of money granted by the national government to the state government with only general provisions as to the way it is to be spent. Simply, if SNAP becomes a state block grant, states have discretion on how that money is spent, such as whether the money is given directly to project participants or funneled to other state interests.
There is little to no discussion of including tribal governments in the block grant, and states would be likely to have general discretion on how to spend SNAP dollars, how to frame eligibility requirements within the state that will likely cause eligibility variances across states. When the Administration for Children and Families transitioned Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) from a federal eligibility program to a state block program, some states shifted funds to higher priorities while cutting direct support to TANF participants.
Currently, SNAP intersects with other federal nutrition programs. For example, children who participate in SNAP are automatically counted in the federal free/reduced-cost school lunch program. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 68 percent of AI/AN students are eligible for free and reduced-price school lunches, compared with only 28 percent of white students. To learn about the free/reduced-price school lunch program, see ICTMN’s article here: National School Lunch Program (NSLP). If some families are no longer eligible for SNAP, the children will no longer be automatically counted in the free/reduced-price school lunch program. Federal funding is attached to the number of students on the school lunch program, and schools would likely see a decrease in funding.
Additionally, the NSLP also has a “Community Eligibility Provision (CEP).” The Community Eligibility Provision allows high-poverty schools to offer breakfast and lunch at no charge to all students while eliminating the traditional school meal application process. The CEP schools use “direct certification” data such as the data from SNAP to determine the federal cash reimbursement for school lunches provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). States such as New Mexico, North Dakota and Alaska, three states with some of the highest American Indian population rates, have over 75 percent of their schools qualifying for the CEP, according to the Food Action Research Center report on Community Eligibility. While states like South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana have over 50 percent of their schools qualifying for the CEP, according to the same report. In short, SNAP is ensuring that more than just SNAP participants are getting fed. Entire schools and communities are benefitting from the program, including those schools in rural and reservation communities.
Termination of the Broad-Based Categorical Eligibility Rule.
Another point of contention for those who would like to see SNAP cut is the Broad-Based Categorical Eligibility Rule. The Congressional Research Service report titled The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program: Categorical Eligibility states, “As of July 21, 2014, 43 jurisdictions have implemented what the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has called ‘broad-based’ categorical eligibility. These jurisdictions generally make all households with incomes below a state-determined income threshold eligible for SNAP.” It further explains that, “There are varying income eligibility thresholds within states that convey ‘broad-based’ categorical eligibility, though no state has a gross income limit above 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. In all but five of these jurisdictions, there is no asset test required for SNAP eligibility. Categorically eligible families bypass the regular SNAP asset limits. However, their net incomes (income after deductions for expenses) must still be low enough to qualify for a SNAP benefit.”
Places like New Mexico have a 130 percent of the poverty line threshold qualification for the broad-based categorical eligibility rule. 130 percent of the poverty line for a three-person family is $2,184 a month, or about $26,200 a year. For a family of four that is about $31,200 per year. In places that have high rent or for families who spend high amounts of income on childcare, families are usually qualified for Broad-Based Categorical Eligibility Rule. Namely, many young families (both single and dual-parent households) who do not yet own homes make up a large percentage of qualifying SNAP users under this rule.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census American Community Survey, American Indian families with two-parent households and children under 18, with an income of $40,000 or lower, were at 23 percent of the population. According to the same survey, single-parent households with children under the age of 10, with incomes of $30,000 or below, were at 66 percent. These families, barely above the threshold, may find it easier to remain single parents rather than struggle at the “just above eligibility” income level without SNAP help.
Other important proposed cuts are:
- The $16 minimum monthly benefit, which primarily goes to low-income seniors and people with disabilities, would be eliminated.
- The work requirement/time limit would restrict time-limit waivers to areas with at least 10 percent unemployment.
While these cuts are just proposals at this stage, the debate about how to shrink the SNAP program is also a conversation about how beneficial the SNAP program has been to communities beyond individual SNAP participants. Also, the fact that SNAP will most likely have programmatic changes that may leave some current participants without many options, so – this is a call to tribal communities and nonprofits to ready their food-system projects to serve and give to those members within their communities who may find themselves without monthly benefits.
A-dae Romero-Briones (Cochiti/Kiowa) is Associate Director of Research and Policy for Native Agriculture for First Nations Development Institute. She formerly was the Director of Community Development for Pūlama Lāna‘i in Hawaii, and the co-founder and former Executive Director of a nonprofit organization in Cochiti Pueblo, New Mexico. Romero-Briones earned her LL.M. degree in Food and Agricultural Law from of the Arkansas School of Law Indigenous Food and Agricultural Initiative, where she wrote extensively about food safety, the Produce Safety rule and tribes, and the protection of tribal traditional foods.