Louder, for the folks in the back: SNAP should be stronger, not cut

How the proposed SNAP overhaul reminds us that we must design government services to be centered on the needs of the people they serve.

Our national Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) provides $70B in food to eligible Americans each year. It is considered one of the most successful government interventions in alleviating poverty, and correlates highly with better health and education outcomes for children.

At Code for America, we work with the public servants who administer SNAP in California (called CalFresh) to help make the program more accessible to those families throughout the state who need it most. And it works: SNAP is estimated to reduce the percentage of children in California living below the poverty line by about 4 percentage points — this by way of one single program. [1] SNAP is a critical part of our social safety net, and the changes proposed in the Trump administration’s budget would be devastating to those who need it most.

Take the proposal to shift a significant portion of the SNAP benefits to the provision of “Food Packages,” replacing much of the money people get on a debit card to buy groceries with a physical box of non-perishable foodstuffs. Experts across the political spectrum have already said it is unworkable for various reasons, but one basic data point from our work on GetCalFresh shows how disconnected from people’s needs this proposal is:

Nearly 30% of the people Code for America helps apply for SNAP through GetCalFresh say they do not have stable housing.

Do we want to make families struggling to figure out where they can sleep the next week also carry the burden of figuring out where to have their box of food delivered?

The broader point here is that public policy should be anchored to the real needs of the people it serves. Half of CalFresh recipients are children; about 7% are disabled or elderly. [2] The purpose of the SNAP program is to give people experiencing the day-to-day struggle of poverty the guarantee of having some basic level of food security. Even talking to just a few of the Americans who receive this help about their lives would reveal how much a “food package” is at odds with this higher goal.

Social safety net programs should strive to reduce the friction in the lives who need help — because they are the Americans who already have the most friction in their lives. That is what we work to do every day at Code for America.

The proposals in this budget would also slash federal funds for this critical part of the social safety net by $213 billion, in addition to making it more difficult and costly to administer for those who need it most. This proposal is a giant step backwards, when we actually need — and have the capability — to make it easier for families who need it to access these programs.

We work side by side with the public servants in the counties and states who dedicate their lives to helping their fellow Americans in need. In California there are 2.5 million people who are eligible for CalFresh but who are not receiving the benefit, and we work together to reach those families and help them get the assistance they need. As a country, we should be focused on making government services simpler and more accessible, not adding roadblocks between critical anti-poverty programs like SNAP and the people who need them.

So while DC debates the merits of this proposal, we’re going to keep working to make government work better for all of us, and especially for those who need it most.

Want to join us? Attend our Code for America Summit in May where workshops like “User-Centered Design: Design Thinking for Government Innovation,” and “Delivery-Driven Policy: The Next Frontier” will explore these topics.

[1] http://calbudgetcenter.org/resources/calfresh-reaches-millions-californians-reduces-poverty/

[2] Ibid

[3] https://www.cbpp.org/blog/presidents-budget-would-cut-and-radically-restructure-snap-food-benefits