2018-04-17 / Opinion

SNAP Must Include Work, Healthy Food Mandates

By Rep. John Faso

With over 42 million Americans — and over 2.8 million New Yorkers — receiving critical nutrition assistance, it is a self-evident fact that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) helps people in meaningful ways. SNAP reduces hunger in low-income households, and when it provides benefits to families with children, it has been shown to improve health outcomes for those children.

Like any program of this size, SNAP is not without flaws. The program insufficiently promotes self-sufficiency; too many recipients could be working, but are not.

There continues to be too much fraud and abuse in the program, and the program also needs to be much more effective in promoting proper nutrition. Congress will soon reauthorize SNAP as part of the 2018 Farm Bill and now is the time to fix the program.

Let’s address these issues one at a time.

First, the program needs to better focus on encouraging and helping non-working recipients find and retain employment. While many receiving SNAP benefits do work — and others are seniors, children or disabled, and therefore can’t be expected to work — a large group of those currently receiving benefits are neither disabled nor employed. In 2016, there were over 11 million non-disabled people aged 18-59 receiving SNAP, who aren’t working.

A purpose of benefit programs such as SNAP should be to help people gain self-sufficiency. We would be more successful at reducing systemic hunger and poverty if states required able bodied adults to participate actively in employment and training programs that put them on a path toward stable employment.

Alternatively, if someone does not wish to participate, they could actively self-select and unenroll from the program. This approach was successful in increasing earnings and reducing poverty in the wake of President Bill Clinton’s sweeping welfare reform in the 1990s, and it will work again if applied to SNAP’s current entitlement structure.

Second, fraud and the improper use of benefits is still too rampant in the SNAP program. Only in Washington is losing roughly $650 million per year due to fraud and failures in program integrity considered a “good job” because it is a small percentage of the total amount of taxpayer money spent. That is still $650 million that is not being used as intended, which is to feed families.

There must be zero tolerance when it comes to fraud and abuse. Hiding income, failing to disclose assets, trafficking benefits or utilizing unscrupulous food vendors are activities we need to stop. Congress needs to allow state and local officials who see this fraud right before their eyes to pursue and penalize this activity.

Finally, the SNAP program is not doing enough to promote nutrition and reduce childhood obesity. Obesity is an issue for far too many American families and childhood obesity in low income families is growing. The program’s title suggests that it promotes healthy and nutritious food options but does nothing to limit the ability to purchase products that no one will argue are part of a healthy diet. Hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of SNAP benefits are spent on sugary beverages, and it’s past time that Washington prohibits the use of SNAP benefits to purchase soda. Every dollar not spent on soda can go toward a healthier alternative. While some will contend we are limiting choice for the poor, tax dollars should only pay to encourage healthier choices.

At the same time, we should also fix some of the asset tests for eligibility, such as allowing a recipient to have a car worth over $12,000 instead of the $5,000 limit today. If we expect someone to work, they need a reliable vehicle to get to the job. We should also allow a recipient to have savings up to $2,000, without affecting eligibility.

Over the next decade, SNAP benefits will total more than $630 billion in taxpayer dollars. We must do more to ensure that we assist able-bodied recipients in joining the job market, while at the same time continuing to assist those for whom nutrition assistance is a necessity.

John Faso, R-Kinderhook, represents the 19th Congressional District.

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