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The Food Assistance Program: A Critical Safety Net for America’s Poor

A recent New York Times editorial states that under the Obama administration the homeless population has remained steady. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 which provided $840 billion as stimulus monies included a $1.5 billion program that providing housing, rental assistance and temporary aid to people who had suddenly become homeless. But the editorial also notes, while conditions might be improving for homeless individuals, things are bleak for families with children. The National Women’s Law Center reported findings that in 2010, over 40 percent of single-mother families were poor; African-American and Hispanic single-mothers families living in poverty were 48 percent and 50 percent respectively. In 2011, single women with children had an unemployment rate of 12 percent compared to 5.8 percent for married women.

As talks of the fiscal cliff in Washington continue with proposed cuts in benefits for low-income families, keep in mind the benefits of programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. The food stamp program serves more than 46 million people and is one of the country’s most important anti-hunger programs. A study by the U.S. Agriculture Department found that safety nets programs like food stamps reduced the poverty rate by nearly 8 percent in 2009. A 2012 report by The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that food stamps helped to reduce the number of people living in extreme poverty in 2011 – defined as those earning less than $2 per person per day - from 1.46 million to about 800,000. Families with children represent almost 75 percent of SNAP participants; more than one-quarter of participants are in households with seniors or people with disabilities.

Assistance with food not only serves the needs of the most vulnerable, but also provides incentives to work. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities states that SNAP increases the family’s take-home pay by approximately 20 to 50 percent, depending on the number of hours worked. SNAP provides incentives to work longer hours and through the SNAP Employment and Training Program, provides training and work-related activities for unemployed adults receiving food assistance. An analysis by economist Mark Zandi at Moody’s Analytics has found that every dollar spent in SNAP benefits generates $1.71 in economic activity that goes toward the salaries of clerks in grocery stores, truckers carrying food across the country, and even back to the farmer growing food for American consumption.

Safety net programs like food assistance are critical to low-income families who need help during economic downturns. The benefits of SNAP are clear: the policy has helped to reduce poverty rates in the U.S., and also helps to generate further economic activity. The 2009 Recovery Act increased SNAP benefits by 13.6% for all SNAP recipients. However, this increase is set to terminate in November 2013 affecting the lives of 46 million people.

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