Would food stamp cuts lead to "hunger and poverty"?

A budget plan being considered in the U.S. House of Representatives would slash spending on the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) by more than $150 billion over the next decade. That would have a devastating impact on the nation's poorest and most vulnerable citizens, according to a report from the left-leaning Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP).

The plan approved by the House Budget Committee this month would cut funding for SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, by more than 20 percent. It includes three major reductions that would take food assistance benefits away from about 3 million low-income people including working families, senior citizens and adults and children with disabilities.

Moreover, the spending plan would convert SNAP into a block grant program that would subsequently slash funding by almost 30 percent, or about $125 billion, between 2021 and 2026.

SNAP "is primarily targeted at very low-income families, and it's designed to ensure that they have an adequate diet," said Dottie Rosenbaum, one of the CBPP report authors, in an interview. "There's a growing body of literature, especially with very young children, that shows that investment has long-term health benefits and educational benefits."

Conservatives have long wanted Congress to rein in SNAP, which is one of the country's largest entitlement programs. Indeed, spending on the program surged from $18 billion in 2001 to $74 billion in 2015. However, as the economy recovered, the number of SNAP recipients has dropped by 2.6 million after peaking in December 2012.

"SNAP cuts of the magnitude that the House Budget Committee proposes would almost certainly lead to increases in hunger and poverty," according to the CBPP. "Under the plan's steep funding cuts, a typical household's SNAP benefits would run out many days earlier (than usual), placing greater strain on household finances (and on emergency food providers) and significantly increasing the risk of hunger."

The House Budget Committee rejects the CBPP's argument and notes the spending plan would give states "more flexibility that would produce better results for those who need the help," according to a statement. It added that the Congressional Budget Office also supports giving the states greater say in how the program is run.

Republicans, including Texas senator and presidential candidate Ted Cruz, have long argued that SNAP fosters "long-term dependency" and have called for less spending on SNAP. Rachel Sheffield, a policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, argues that program recipients need a stronger work requirement.

"Work should be at the foundation of the food stamps program," she said. "Able-bodied adults should be required to work or prepare for work or look for work in exchange for receiving benefits." The existing work requirements, such as three-month time limit for able-bodied adults to collect benefits, aren't sufficient because many states have gotten waivers that get around them, according to Sheffield.

"Assistance is available to those who need it," she said, adding that the work requirement "serves as a gatekeeper ... saying if you can work rather than enroll in food stamps, then you should be working."

According to the CBPP, many SNAP participants do work. Indeed, the number of households that have earnings more than tripled between 2000 and 2014 to 4 million. Thanks to the program, 10.3 million Americans were pushed above the poverty line in 2012, including 4.9 million children.

Some experts also have long argued that cutting food stamps could have unintended consequences. Economists estimate that every $1 in spending on the program generates about $1.70 in local economic activity. A study by Northwestern University professor Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach credited the program with a decrease in low birth weights and a decline in infant mortality.

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    Jonathan Berr is an award-winning journalist and podcaster based in New Jersey whose main focus is on business and economic issues.