I've written pretty frequently about food stamps (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP), especially about how the supposed fraud rate is minuscule compared to the good the program does, and that the number of people eligible is much lower than the number who use it, even after the Great Recession. So that small fraud rate is greatly offset by under-use.
The Washington Post recently ran a Q&A with Craig Gunderson, a University of Illinois professor of agriculture and consumer economics who has been studying the program for 20 years. Gunderson covers the key topics we all need to know to understand what SNAP is and isn't, plus who its users are and aren't. And how they use the program, despite claims to the contrary that most of us hear from our right-wing uncles.
- The average SNAP beneficiary is a child. Among the minority who are not children, the vast majority are either retired, disabled, caring for someone else, going to school, or working.
- SNAP does not discourage paid work. Gunderson says that Medicaid, for instance, can discourage work because it has a hard income cutoff; SNAP benefits gradually decrease instead of ending abruptly. That is a good thing.
- SNAP recipients don't buy junk food any more than comparable populations who don't get SNAP. Gunderson argues the way to think about this is to compare SNAP folks to all of the others who are eligible but don't file for the program for whatever reason. He also explains why a recently publicized study (which appeared to show higher rates of junk food purchases) was methodologically flawed.
- SNAP cannot be used at fast food restaurants. No, Uncle Marvin, that's not true.
- The EBT cards now used to distribute SNAP benefits (which replaced the paper coupons we all still call "food stamps") cannot be sold unless the user also gives up their PIN, and trusts the person to bring the card back. Would you sell your card to a stranger on the hope they would bring it back?
I was giving [a SNAP presentation] to a group of farmers. One guy in the audience stood up and said that, in his community, people sold their EBT cards outside of grocery stores. He claimed to have purchased one, if I remember.Likewise, stories about people buying high-value foods like infant formula with their EBT cards in order to resell it are confused or wrong, he said.
And I kind of paused and said, so -- did that person also give you his PIN number? Because you can’t use the card without it. And I said -- do you realize that was a federal offense? Then he kind of backed down: “Oh, actually I didn’t buy the card, I heard about it from someone else.”
Another myth: that undocumented immigrants receive SNAP benefits. Not true, he said. The U.S.-born children of an undocumented immigrant may be receiving SNAP, but those kids have as much right to it as anyone else.
As far as the "I saw a person drive up in a Cadillac and use EBT" story goes... A car worth more than $4,600 is a disqualifying asset. Maybe the car is borrowed. Maybe it's old and not worth as much as you assume. You don't know. Why do you care so much about other people's business, anyway?
The average amount of time that people get SNAP benefits is seven to nine months.