7 things you may not know about food stamps

Food stamps are a matter of public debate after the Trump administration unveiled its plan to turn the antipoverty program into a "Blue Apron-type program." But critics say the food-box plan is a distraction from a bigger threat facing the program: the administration's proposal to slash its spending by 30 percent. 

President Donald Trump's budget proposes cutting $213 billion over a decade from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a move that the progressively minded Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) calls "ill-advised and harmful." 

Much of the current debate is focused on Mr. Trump's "Blue Apron" idea, which critics pointed out wouldn't be anything like the subscription gourmet meal service. For one, the boxes would rely on canned foods and long-life milk instead of fresh fruits and vegetables, a far cry from the fresh food delivered by Blue Apron. And recipients of Mr. Trump's "America's Harvest Box" wouldn't get to pick what they wanted to eat, unlike Blue Apron customers. 

However, critics say the hullabaloo is overshadowing the bigger problems facing SNAP, including the Trump proposal to slash funding and cut eligibility, which would bump millions of low-income senior citizens, disabled Americans and working families off the program. Four million families would lose their food stamps from the eligibility requirements alone, the CBPP estimates. 

Conservatives often criticize food stamps because the program allows recipients to buy soda, candy, desserts and other unhealthy foods, an issue that was hinted at by Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, who said the food box would ensure "they're getting nutritious food." Part of the criticism was fueled by a 2016 report finding that households receiving food stamps use 20 cents of every dollar to buy sodas and sweets, which the conservative American Enterprise Institute called "alarming."

To critics, that raises questions about SNAP's efficiency. Yet academics and policymakers have judged food stamps as one of the nation's most effective antipoverty programs. 

About 44 million Americans receive food stamps, or almost one in seven people. The highest use is in Washington, D.C., and Mississippi, where 22 percent and 21 percent of the population receive the benefit, respectively. 

Here are seven things you might not know about SNAP:

It doesn't cover all grocery costs. The name Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program sums up its mission: to provide supplemental funding for grocery purchases. Early on, food stamps were limited to one-third of a household's grocery spending. Today, a majority of recipients use their own money as well as food stamps to keep their larder stocked. 

Food stamps create economic growth. An overlooked aspect of the program is how it supports businesses and economic growth. In fact, Moody's Analytics estimated that every $1 of food stamp spending creates about $1.70 in economic activity, more than the benefit from tax cuts or boosting defense spending. In fact, Walmart (WMT) could be one of the biggest losers if the program is cut because it accepts food-stamp payments at its grocery stores. 

Mr. Trump would cut a program that's already shrinking. Food stamp spending has dropped by $12 billion since 2013, when it reached $79 billion in annual benefits, its largest year ever. The program's rolls swelled following the Great Recession, but enrollment and spending have declined each of the last four years. 

Food stamps can't buy hot foods or household supplies. Food stamp recipients won't have any luck with buying that rotisserie chicken because the program prohibits spending on hot foods as well as nonfood items like cleaning supplies, vitamin supplements, cigarettes or alcoholic beverages. 

Soda consumption isn't any higher with food stamps. One criticism of the "Blue Apron" idea is that it effectively dictates what poor Americans can eat, blocking them from buying soda or sweets. But the U.S. Agriculture Department found that food-stamp recipients spent nearly the same amount on soda as households that don't receive the benefits.

Two-thirds of food-stamp recipients are elderly, disabled or children. With 44 percent of recipients under 18 years old, children make up one of the biggest demographics. Another 12 percent are seniors, while 9 percent are disabled. The Trump administration's budgets would "affect every type of SNAP participant," including these vulnerable groups, according to Stacy Dean, the vice president for food assistance policy at the CBPP. 

The fraud rate is low. Despite concerns about misuse of food stamps, the program has "one of the lowest fraud rates for federal programs," according to the Agriculture Department. Only about 1 percent of benefits are "trafficked," or when recipients illegally sell the benefits for cash. The agency said it continues to crack down on existing fraud.