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Modernizing SNAP benefits

A girl on a grocery cart

Problem

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is an effective program that prevents millions of families from becoming food insecure;  however, the current benefit allocations are based on increasingly outdated assumptions, including unreasonable expectations about households’ availability of time to prepare food, and need to be modernized.

Proposal

A time adjustment factor, increasing maximum SNAP benefit levels by 20 percent, would be introduced to offset unrealistic expectations for time use. Subsequently, a comprehensive reform of the maximum benefit allotment would be conducted, which would introduce geographic price adjustments, allow for cost variability over time, expand from its current, overly narrow sample the comparison group over which example consumption patterns are drawn, and account for heightened food needs of teenagers. The USDA would also conduct research to support its ability to implement the first two stages of the proposal.

Abstract

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, is the largest food assistance program in the United States. The goal of SNAP is to alleviate food insecurity and improve nutrition by helping lowincome households purchase food to prepare at home. SNAP benefits are provided monthly to eligible households, based on a maximum benefit determined by the cost of a food budget known as the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP). However, the TFP assumes that low-income households can spend an unlimited amount of time preparing food from scratch and has consequently shifted toward the food items that are lowest cost but most time-intensive.

Ziliak proposes a three-stage approach to improving the adequacy of SNAP benefits by modernizing the TFP. In the first stage, the estimated cost of the TFP would be immediately increased by twenty percent to partially account for the cost of time spent on food preparation. Next, the USDA would further reform the TFP to address features that distort the composition of the grocery cart, including geographic variation in food prices, the 1970s-set cap on the inflation-adjusted value of SNAP benefits, the TFP’s excessively narrow focus on low-income households, and the lack of consideration for the dietary needs of teenagers. Finally, he proposes a specific research agenda to support the first two stages. The proposal would bring the assumptions underlying SNAP benefit levels in line with current norms of food consumption and time use, thus strengthening the effectiveness of SNAP in addressing food insecurity and other health and nutrition outcomes.

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