What is a Food Stamp Budget?

Every once in a while some group or other challenges its members to eat on a food stamp budget for a time to raise awareness of food security issues.  How much money is in a food stamp budget, and how do we evaluate if it is the right amount?

Let's turn to the USDA's FAQ for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).  Scroll down to the bottom of the FAQ.  A person whose net income is at or below the poverty line ($903/month for a single person) gets $200/month worth of benefits, which is about $6.67 per day.  Each additional person in the household increases the poverty threshold by about $312/month, and results in an another $150-167/month in benefits, depending on how many people there are in total.  The decrease in benefits per additional person makes sense because of economies of scale.  I happily feed two of us for less than twice the cost of feeding just myself.  A family of four gets about $5.56 per person per day.

My immediate reaction is not only to say that it is easy to live at the poverty level of income, but also that SNAP benefits are extremely generous.  I spent years supporting myself below the poverty line, and I still spend less on food for my household of two than SNAP would allot.  Besides my experiences, let's look at some statistics from the USDA.  A two-parent and two-child family earning less than $56,870 (average $36,380) in 2008 spent an average of $9000/year/kid.  I would love to see the standard deviation for that, and the average for families earning less than $13,000, or even $13,000 to the top of the bottom overall national quintile if none of the study participants were in poverty.  A family with $56,000 inflates these averages with its discretionary spending, so we don't know what amounts of money are actually necessary.  An average of 18% of the $9000 went to food, which comes to $1620/year/kid, or $135/month/kid.  So, the amount of SNAP benefit for each additional kid in a family is roughly 11-23% more than many families spend on average.

A single parent spends about 2/3 as much on the kids per year, which probably gives us a much better approximation of what amount of spending is actually necessary, but we don't see in the report what percent of this smaller amount of money goes to food.  If a kid costs $6000/year, or $500/month, a family in poverty will see progressively larger problems with more kids, since the poverty line only gets bumped up by $312/month/person.  Except that the $6000/year figure includes a bunch of assumptions that fit the USDA model for families who are not in poverty.  About $2000 of that would be housing, and people below the poverty line tend to qualify for housing assistance such as Section 8.  Health care might be about another $500, and people below the poverty line tend to qualify for Medicaid, and children for SCHIP.  There are pieces of information missing from the puzzle, but overall I can find few complaints with the poverty cut-offs and SNAP benefits allotments.

The complaint about SNAP benefits is of course that they are too high on average.  And there is evidence that people with more SNAP funds than they need may use them to buy more unhealthy food that damages their health and unnecessarily burdens our health care system and country.

My other complaints are that the system seems too rigid, and does not obviously take into consideration differences in cost of living by geography.  As seen in the USDA report, rural areas are cheaper to live in than urban areas, and the urban south is cheaper than the urban northeast.  Perhaps the SNAP benefits are high because they have to be able to feed people who live in expensive areas, and people who live in cheap areas just get a big windfall of steaks and whatnot.  The USDA does say that "Eligibility levels are slightly higher for Alaska and Hawaii" because food costs more in those states due to transportation.  I am only looking at the federal maximum allotment levels, and different states may have different policies that better reflect their costs of living by area.  In the future, I will look into the policies of my state and select other states.

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