December 8, 2017

USDA’s Pledge to Allow Food Stamp “Flexibilities” for States Could Open Door to Misguided Eligibility Requirements, Says Science Group

WASHINGTON (December 8, 2017)—The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently indicated it will give state agencies greater control over the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—commonly known as food stamps—which could open the door to misguided work requirements and drug testing, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). The USDA’s announcement echoed themes in a letter the agency sent to state SNAP commissioners last week that maintained that new “flexibilities” would ensure “people who can work, should work” and reduce program “waste, fraud [and] abuse.”

“The facts show that SNAP works” said Ricardo Salvador, director of the Food and Environment Program at UCS. “The number of people in the program increased after the Great Recession, but it has dropped to 42 million since then because the economy has improved. That’s how the program was designed to operate.

“Elected officials have long claimed SNAP ‘fraud’ and ‘abuse’ as the rationale for cutting benefits, which harms families struggling to make ends meet,” Salvador continued. “There are no studies, not even ones by the USDA, that have found any evidence of widespread participant abuse of SNAP benefits.”

SNAP currently helps approximately one in eight Americans, many of whom live in rural areas, and operates with a low incidence of fraud and abuse. According to the USDA, the SNAP “trafficking rate,”—the sale or purchase of SNAP benefits for cash, has fallen over the last 16 years from 3.5 percent to 1.5 percent of total SNAP benefits redeemed. The USDA also says that most SNAP recipients who can work, do work. Nearly two-thirds of the program’s participants are children, elderly, or disabled and therefore cannot hold a job.

The USDA’s December 5 announcement came shortly after the agency staff met with the Secretaries’ Innovation Group, a group of conservative state human service and workforce secretaries who favor block grants for social programs and stricter work requirements for aid. And the same day the agency issued the announcement, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said he is moving ahead with plans to force some SNAP recipients to take drug tests.

“Drug testing throws away taxpayer money at a problem that doesn’t exist,” said Salvador. Some recent examples show how some drug testing programs can cost the government more money than they save. A drug testing initiative for a state-run federal assistance program in Louisiana, for instance, resulted in a net loss of $60,000. A similar program in Idaho, meanwhile, lost as much as $180,000. In both cases, the cost of conducting drug tests was higher than what the states saved by excluding recipients who tested positive for using drugs.

“If the USDA and our elected officials were truly interested in helping people get back on their feet and cutting the SNAP program’s cost,” said Salvador, “they would make sure that eligible families get the nutrition they need instead of adding more eligibility requirements or restructuring the tax code so that it perpetuates the very conditions that necessitate food aid in the first place.”

For more information, see this issue brief outlining ways to make the SNAP program more effective and this recent study that found that current SNAP benefits do not ensure participants can afford to follow a healthy diet as defined by the USDA’s own “MyPlate” guidelines. 

The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet's most pressing problems. Joining with people across the country, we combine technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.