Editorial: SNAP isn't perfect, but families across the state need to eat

By Janet Stevens / The Bulletin

Published Nov 1, 2013 at 05:00AM

If you’re among the roughly 20 percent of Oregonians who take part in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — or food stamp program — your benefit is going down this month. The decline was planned: Benefits were increased temporarily in 2009 to help ease the pain of recession.

Though the recession is over, the number of people qualifying for food stamps hasn’t declined as much as some expected. You can blame a lingering, relatively-high unemployment rate for that. During August, about 8 percent of workers in Oregon were unemployed, according to the state. In Deschutes County, that figure was 9.9 percent, 1 percent below what it was in Jefferson County. Crook County’s unemployment rate was 12.6 percent.

Yet, even those of us with jobs can find it hard to keep food on the table, and the SNAP program reflects that. People are eligible if their income is as much as 130 percent of the federally-established poverty level — $20,172 gross income for a family of two in 2012. That same family, after deductions, must have an income of no more than $1,290 a month to qualify for the program.

That’s not much money with which to pay rent, keep a car — and with food stamps that car must be worth less than $5,000 — buy $3.25-plus per gallon gasoline, buy clothing and all the rest. SNAP will add as much as $347 per month to that, though the number could be smaller.

And that is not much money to spend on food, even food for two people over 30 days. In fact, it’s just over $10 per day, enough to eat meat, occasionally, if you skimp for several days running, but probably no more than once a week. In winter, when produce costs can be high, it could mean fresh salads and the like are not a part of the daily diet.

In fact, the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan economic think tank, says a family of two in Bend living modestly can expect to spend about $20 a month more than that on food.

In the end, like the idea of food stamps or not, SNAP is one of those government programs that actually improves the lives of those who take part. In doing so, however, it has gathered its fair share of critics.

Two complaints seem to rise to the top. One, that SNAP goes to large numbers of people who don’t deserve it, is simply untrue. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 99 percent of recipients are eligible, and more than 96 percent are receiving exactly the amount to which they’re entitled. Payment errors are, USDA said, less than half of what they were 11 years ago. For recipients, it pays to be honest. If they’re not, they run the risk of being kicked out of the program altogether.

Meanwhile, officials spend considerable time and effort pursuing fraud — most commonly fraud in which a recipient receives cash from a supermarket or smaller store. That’s called trafficking, and today accounts for about a penny on the dollar distributed in benefits, down from about 4 cents on the dollar in 1993.

It’s a crime USDA pays close attention to: In 2012, for example, the government reviewed more than 15,000 grocery stores in the country and did undercover investigations in 4,500 of them.

Some argue that some SNAP recipients should be made to work. How, with high unemployment, that is possible escapes me. But many recipients do work. About 60 percent of families with children on SNAP are employed, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and many of the rest include disabled or elderly family members.

In the end, I don’t think most Americans want their neighbors to go hungry, and SNAP helps prevent that. It’s a critical piece of what President Ronald Reagan called the “safety net,” something that is supposed to assure that everyone in this country has or can get the basics of life.