Why the Farm Bill Needs a Gender Lens

On July 11th, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a version of the farm bill that eliminates all nutritional aid to hungry Americans in need, which is provided mainly through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Not since 1973 has Congress separated subsidies to farmers from individuals in need of food security.  At a moment when Congress is seeking substantial changes to SNAP, it is important to ask: Who exactly is affected by changes?

SNAP, previously known informally as food stamps, ensures that approximately 46 million low-income Americans can afford to eat adequately. Administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it provides an average benefit of $133 per person per month to eligible adults and children. Of those relying on SNAP, 45 percent are children, 36 percent are non-elderly, non-disabled adults, and 19 percent are elderly/disabled adults.

Look at the numbers through a gender lens

Women make up 62 percent of the non-elderly adult SNAP beneficiaries. Women also account for 66 percent of the elderly adults receiving the support. Fifty-six percent of SNAP households with children are single-adult households.  According to America’s Children, 24 percent of all children live in single-parent households headed by women.

Both houses of Congress have introduced bills to reform SNAP.  Each bill will change the determination of household eligibility for SNAP (for more on how SNAP eligibility is calculated, see this report released by the Congressional Research Service). If either of the versions are passed then varying number of people will be affected by these changes. The CBO estimates that if the Senate’s version of the bill is signed into law, approximately 500,000 households would receive lower benefits, by approximately $90 per month. (Health Impact Project, a collaboration between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Pew Charitable Trusts, puts the figures lower: 304,000 households would have their benefits reduced by $67 monthly. 

On the other hand, the CBO estimates that under the House’s version of the bill, 1.8 million individuals could lose eligibility for SNAP benefits. Health Impact Project suggested that the number could be much higher, from 1.6 million up to 5.1 million individuals no longer eligible, depending on what information is included in the income and assets calculation. Even at its most conservative, close to 2 million individuals would lose out.

Lawmakers are using these different versions of the bill to reform SNAP, but their efforts hinge on mythologies about who uses SNAP benefits and why.


A few SNAP myths at work

MYTH: SNAP recipients are mostly African American and Latina women trying to “get over” on the system.
The Welfare Queen, the lazy mother unwilling to work, etc. In actuality, in 2011, USDA data shows that approximately 45 percent of SNAP participants were under age 18 and nearly 9 percent were age 60 or older. More than half of the beneficiaries aren’t able to work.

MYTH: SNAP benefits encourage people to be lazy, and comfortable with unemployment. 
USDA data shows that over 30 percent of SNAP households had earnings in 2011, with 41 percent of all SNAP participants living in a household with earnings. In cases like these earning households need assistance as their wages are too low to cover household costs. Furthermore data suggests that 80 percent of people run out of their benefits by the third week of the month. Therefore solely surviving on SNAP benefits isn’t really a choice.

MYTH: Minorities make up a disproportionate portion of SNAP beneficiaries.  
In 2011, 33.1 percent of SNAP beneficiaries were White, 23.5 percent were African Americans and 15.9 percent were Hispanics (20.8 percent were classified as race unknown).

MYTH: SNAP is draining the nation’s wealth. 
While most news stories promote the idea that SNAP contributes to the nation’s long term fiscal problems, economists consider SNAP to be one of the most effective forms of economic stimulus. Moody’s Analytics estimates that every dollar increase in SNAP benefits generates around $1.70 economic activity. Making budget cuts in the benefits would not only affect the beneficiaries but also the local economy as people would have lesser money to spend.

In the playing out of the political drama between the Republicans and the Democrats, Congress seems to have forgotten that there are 46 million real people who rely on SNAP for food. Significant reductions in benefits or loss of eligibility target those who can least afford them: America’s most vulnerable families.


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