New House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) is getting a lot of attention for a speech he made on December 3 outlining his 2016 goal for a pro-growth agenda - creating jobs, raising wages, fixing the tax code, trade agreements, and national security. In that speech, he also suggested that he would like to “…combine a lot of them (82 different programs to help people in need) and send that money back to the states for better poverty-fighting solutions.” What might those programs be? Speaker Ryan highlighted “food stamps, Medicaid, housing assistance, and other assistance” in his speech, but there certainly could be many more food assistance programs subject to this review. The key concern that hunger advocates have rightly had about converting food programs to a block grant has been that a block grant program might not be sufficiently responsive to changing economic conditions.
The idea of moving food stamps – actually known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) since the enactment of the H.R. 2419, the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 on May 22, 2008 – to a block grant is a consistent one for the Speaker. During the four years that Speaker Ryan served as Chairman of the House Budget Committee, calls to convert the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) into a block grant were made repeatedly:
And even though he stepped down as Chairman of the Budget Committee at the end of the 113th Congress, new Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-GA) continued the proposal this year - House Report 113-403 accompanying the Fiscal Year 2016 House Budget Resolution included language at page 116 that proposed converting the SNAP into a state block grant program beginning in FY 2021.
What other programs could be impacted? On the domestic food assistance side,csfcsf it would be wise to think about the potential to convert the school lunch and breakfast programs to a block grant. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) could be converted, as could the Summer Feeding Program, the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), and the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP).
When the prior budget resolutions suggested cutting the funding available for SNAP nearly in half, food program advocates – and everyone who utilizes these programs - faced a very legitimate concern. Add to that that states could well develop their own programs with their own standards, recipients could be treated differently from one state to the next. Food manufacturers and retailers who need consistent standards to keep costs down could face fifty or more sets of rules, making the programs even more complex and expensive to administer, while benefit levels themselves could be threatened.
The House Agriculture Committee has held ten hearings this year alone to review the SNAP program in anticipation of the next reauthorization which is expected in 2018 when a new President will be in place, whose priorities are yet to be determined. A lot of issues were raised during those hearings, including the problem associated with the loss of benefits when people get a job or a raise, merit thoughtful consideration.
Those who care about this food assistance program need to be prepared for a challenging time ahead.