food stamps
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Last week in Arkansas, the state House of Representatives passed a bill that would ban the use of federal food stamps to purchase food with “insufficient nutritional value.” The sponsor of the bill, State Rep. Mary Bentley, argued that “I want the kids in our state to have sippy cups that are full of good, fresh milk from Arkansas dairies and fruit juice and not Mountain Dew and Pepsi.”

This justification echoes the narrative of a recent front-page story in the New York Times, provocatively titled: “In the Shopping Cart of a Food Stamp Household: Lots of Soda.” The claim? That families receiving benefits under the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) spend more money on soft drinks than anything else. Illustrating the article was a photograph of a shopping cart filled with nothing but cases of soda.

There was a problem, however, with this tidy narrative. The report on which this article was purportedly based actually found that there are no major differences between the grocery purchases of SNAP households and other consumers. Both groups spend the largest share of their grocery budget on meat, poultry, and seafood, and the difference between SNAP and non-SNAP households in expenditures on soft drinks is a mere one cent per dollar.

The Times’ piece was quickly and widely derided—and rightfully so. In Jacobin, political scientist Joe Soss deftly deconstructed all the ways that the article misrepresented the data to “pande[r] to the worst stereotypes of ‘welfare’” and “tel[l] people who imagine the worst about food stamps that they’ve been right all along.” A few days later, the Times’ public editor weighed in, siding with the critics.

While the Times’ headline was false, it proved an old adage to be true: A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on. In addition to Arkansas, the state governments of Maine, New Mexico, and Montana, and Tennessee have made varied attempts to restrict SNAP purchases just in the past few weeks.

But here’s the truth: As sociologist Philip Cohen has notably observed, the grocery spending category where SNAP and non-SNAP households differ most is baby food; SNAP households spend over three times as much of their grocery budget on baby food than do non-SNAP households (though families receiving assistance are on average the same size as other families). Yet the narrative that gains traction in the legislatures is also the one that gets featured in the headlines, false premise notwithstanding: low-income families making bad, irresponsible choices.

A law passed in any state will still need approval from the Department of Agriculture (USDA), which has long opposed restrictions on SNAP purchases. In 2007, the USDA published an entire report about this issue, in which the agency laid out an array of practical concerns about defining foods as “healthy” or “unhealthy” and obstacles to implementing new restrictions in every check-out aisle across the country. Moreover, the report noted that without strong evidence to support restricting SNAP purchases, “the basis for singling out low-income food stamp recipients and restricting their food choices is not clear.”

Nevertheless, the USDA has made its own concessions that play into a narrative of distrust of benefits recipients. Most recently, the agency issued a new rule permitting states to require SNAP households to have their photos added to their EBT cards, even as “fraud” in the program is consistently miniscule. At least one state, Virginia, is moving toward taking up this option. Meanwhile, Maine is seeking to impose a similar requirement for participants in WIC, the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program; its insistence on the photo ID requirement, which has delayed a required technology upgrade, has already cost the state $1.4 million in federal funds that should be going to families in need.

Sloganeering around “program integrity” sounds fine, but the practical impacts too often just make life harder for people receiving assistance. Imagine the sick parent who sends her fourteen-year-old to the grocery store for some chicken noodle soup–only to have them turned down at the cash register due to a photo ID requirement. What’s more, saddling programs with extra red tape makes things more difficult for administrators and frontline workers, which leads to errors and exclusion. Finally, these types of measures just indulge the misperceptions and racial stereotypes that lie behind the public distrust, and in so doing perpetuate them.

SNAP is a highly effective, highly beneficial program that boosts the economy as well as the short- and long-term well-being of millions of American families. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.

The real story is that only around 1% of SNAP benefits are misused — a gold standard for accountability. Most SNAP households with children include at least one worker, who is often working for an employer that depends on public assistance programs to subsidize their abysmally low wages. Two-thirds of all SNAP recipients are children, elderly, or have a disability. More white people receive SNAP than any other racial group, and contrary to popular belief, participation in the program is higher in rural areas than in the cities. In 2012, SNAP kept over 10 million Americans out of poverty, including 5 million children. Most SNAP households receive benefits for less than two years, allowing them to make ends meet during a temporary setback; when the economy improves, participation in SNAP declines. The program boosts local economies, with every $5 in new SNAP benefits translating into $9 in economic activity. SNAP supports better educational outcomes for children and economic stability for their parents. Access to SNAP in early childhood also decreases the chances of obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes later in life.

SNAP is a highly effective, highly beneficial program that boosts the economy as well as the short- and long-term well-being of millions of American families. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved. SNAP benefits are quite low, averaging around $12 per day for a family of three. By the end of the month, most families’ benefits have run out. Many low-income families struggle to buy basic necessities like diapers, particularly since hardly any SNAP households receive cash assistance. SNAP households can be required to re-certify their eligibility as often as every four months, which consistently leads to eligible families getting kicked off the program and having to start the process all over again – a process known as “churn.” In a study of six states’ churn rates, the families most likely to be caught up in this cycle were young, working families with children. In over a dozen states, families are required to spend down virtually all of their savings before they qualify for SNAP, increasing their financial vulnerability and tying them up in mountains of red tape.

Those are the facts. So rather than further curtailing SNAP, we should strengthen it. Increasing the amount of assistance would amplify SNAP’s numerous health and economic benefits. Evidence shows that upping SNAP benefit levels increases the amount of fresh produce and other nutritious foods that families buy. We should also think through ways to make SNAP more like cash, to give families more flexibility to meet their actual needs. At the very least, this could include allowing families to use their benefits to purchase diapers and providing an extra supplement just for this purpose. States should also extend recertification periods and simplify the recertification process by reducing paperwork and offering phone and online options for renewal. Finally, the perverse penalties for saving should be eliminated in all 50 states.

SNAP has served as a lifeline for millions of families. Too often, though, public assistance programs are designed not to accommodate the needs of actual families, but to placate misinformed critics of the safety net. It is more important than ever that the stories we put forth about public assistance are accurate, nuanced, and grounded in both data and lived experience. This requires responsible journalism and responsible policymaking. The best way to look beyond preconceived narratives about families struggling in and around poverty is to talk to them, hear their lived experience and honestly consider what the numbers really say.

Justin King and Aleta Sprague

Justin King is Policy Director of the Asset Building Program at New America. Aleta Sprague is a Program Fellow with the Family-Centered Social Policy Program at New America.