The Common Good

10 Myths About the Food Stamp Program (That Thing Congress is Trying to Gut)

About a year ago, I wrote about my family participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Challenge, which encourages families to try to live on the equivalent of SNAP assistance (food stamps) for one week. It was a growing experience for all of us, and we actually fell short of our intended goal. It turns out that it’s not easy to feed a family of four well — especially without great time and effort — on less than $20 a day.

In looking back on that experience, a number of myths come to mind that I’ve heard from folks about SNAP, which I thought I’d share here.

Myth #1 — SNAP is a welfare program. 
Actually, it’s not part of the welfare system. It’s intended specifically to help low-income individuals and families eat healthfully, which ultimately is a proactive investment in health care that yields long-term benefits for all of us.

Myth #2 — Most people who receive SNAP don’t really need it
According to Feeding America, the average family receiving SNAP has a monthly gross income of $744. This is well below the poverty line ($14,648 for a family of three), which itself presents a challenge to those seeking to feed their families appropriately.

Myth #3 — SNAP provides more than is necessary for the poor to eat well. 
On average, a beneficiary of SNAP receives $133.41 per month (in 2012). Assuming three meals a day, this equals less than $1.50 per meal, per person.

Myth #4 — One of the House proposals — getting rid of “categorical eligibility” in SNAP — would save money by keeping people who don’t need help out of the system. 
First, the ones who would suffer the most from eliminating categorical eligibility would be more than 200,000 children who receive free school lunches. Second, it would serve to delay benefits to those who qualify anyway because of added layers of red tape. Categorical eligibility actually streamlines government bureaucracy so more money goes to recipients and gets to them more quickly.

Myth #5 — SNAP is just another bloated government program. 
In fact, the administrative expenses for SNAP are less than 5 percent ... which is better than the vast majority of nonprofits in the United States.

Myth #6 — People on SNAP don’t work. 
Current rules limit SNAP benefits for adults deemed able to work to a total of three months in a 36-month period. It also offers a work incentive so that benefits are reduced gradually as employees become increasingly independent.

Myth #7 — Immigrants are the big beneficiaries of SNAP. 
If you are a legal resident* with a green card, you have to wait five years after residence to receive SNAP. Fewer than 1-in-20 people receiving SNAP benefits at all are non-citizens, generally because they are spouses of citizens.

Myth #8 — Most SNAP recipients are able-bodied but unmotivated adults. 
More than three-fourths of the households receiving SNAP have at least one child, elderly, and/or disabled person living there. Only 17 percent of SNAP benefits go to households who don’t meet these criteria.

Myth #9 — The current administration is pouring good money after bad into SNAP. 
The formula for SNAP assistance is related to national unemployment figures, which is why funding for it has grown in recent years. But it still doesn’t keep pace with unemployment. While the number of people unemployed increased by 94 percent between 2007 and 2011, SNAP funding increased by 70 percent.

Myth #10 — SNAP is wasteful and gives money to the wrong people. SNAP actually is deemed to be the most efficient major benefit government assistance program in operation, with an efficiency of 96.2 percent in 2011. The majority of errors in disbursement end up being underpayments.

Christian Piatt is a Sojourners Featured Writer and an author, editor, speaker, musician, and spoken word artist. He is director of church growth and development at First Christian Church in Portland, Ore. Christian is the creator and editor of Banned Questions About The Bible and Banned Questions About Jesus. His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

Image: Healthy food pyramid, Bogdan Wankowicz / Shutterstock.com

*Editor's Note: An earlier version of this piece used the term "citizen" instead of "resident," which has been corrected.

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