Block Grants: Over Sold - Under Thought

By Marshall Matz

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By Marshall Matz and Roger Szemraj.  There has been a lot of discussion lately about converting various food assistance programs from their current status as entitlement programs into a block grant.   This is not a new idea.  It was part of the “Personal Responsibility Act” included in Speaker Newt Gingrich's 1995-1996 Contract with America. The Speaker proposed combining school lunch, school breakfast, WIC, and Food Stamps (now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or “SNAP”) into a block grant. 

Earlier this year, the Fiscal Year 2013 House Budget Resolution included language that would renew this old effort to convert SNAP into a state block grant program.  On September 20, Senator Inhofe (R-OK) introduced S. 3602, the Food Stamp Restoration Act, a bill to repeal the nutrition entitlement programs and establish a block grant for SNAP.   Then, Congressman Tim Huelskamp (R-KS) was joined by eight other members in introducing HR 6567, on October 2, the State Nutrition Assistance Flexibility Act of 2012. 

Block grants, on the surface, may have some appeal.  The goal of the legislation, allegedly, is to provide program flexibility and to simplify administration.  But things aren't always what they seem.

A block grant, simply put, provides a lump sum of money to the recipient - in this case the states - to finance some particular action or policy agenda.   The amount of money provided to each state can be based on anything from a formula to a specific application procedure.  It can be used for whatever purpose is authorized by the legislation.  A block grant is also a method to limit spending. 

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The SNAP program is an entitlement program.  That means that, as a matter of law, every person who is eligible for SNAP benefits receives a specified benefit based on income.  The average SNAP household has a gross monthly income of $731 and net monthly income of $336.  76% of SNAP households included a child, an elderly person, or a disabled person. According to USDA's Food and Nutrition Service, the average SNAP benefit received in 2011 was $133.85 per month, less than $1.50 per meal.  The maximum benefit is $200 per person.  With less funding being proposed for these programs than is provided today, some people currently receiving the average benefit of $1.50 per meal would lose it, while others would have their benefits cut. 

Under current law, as an entitlement program, even as more people qualify for the program, or become eligible for more benefits based upon a lower income, the Appropriations Committees must provide the money needed to fully fund the program. 

The Huelskamp bill would eliminate this entitlement.  It replaces five programs: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP); the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP); the Fresh Fruit & Vegetable School Snack Program; and the Senior Farmers' Market Nutrition Program.  The bill cuts available funding by about half, returning to 2008 levels.  The bill also provides that a portion of the federal assistance provided to the states could be used for other unspecified welfare-related programs.  The bill goes on to say “Nothing in this Act shall be construed as providing an individual with an entitlement to supplemental food and nutrition assistance under this Act.”  The Inhofe bill would also repeal the entitlement status for SNAP. 

Under a block grant, these programs would be turned over to the states so each state could design the program for themselves.  States would be free to change the standards of eligibility, benefit levels, so that some states may be viewed as less or more generous than others. States could also each develop their own list of eligible foods or nutrition criteria, work requirements or time limits eliminating any national uniformity.

In the end, if the suggested block grant is implemented irrespective of the economy, there is likely to be less money spent on food. Cheaper foods are likely to be purchased to stretch the food dollar.  There are some grocery stores that are located in poorer neighborhoods that are largely dependent upon the sale of food items using SNAP benefits.   If those customers buy less, it is reasonable to ask if those stores will remain. 

And if a block grant is imposed for these programs, can a block grant for school lunch, school breakfast, and WIC be far behind?

In short, we believe that block grants for food programs are a bad idea because: 1. they will significantly cut benefits below what is needed; and 2. each state could have their own individual standards for nutritional criteria and other key program requirements. 

President Richard Nixon was the first President to recognize the fight against hunger as a federal responsibility. Addressing the White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health, on December 2, 1968 he said:

“The moment is at hand to put an end to hunger in America…for all time. Speaking for this Administration, I not only accept the responsibility, I claim the responsibility.  

“Malnourishment is a national concern….  First of all there is a moral imperative: Our national conscience requires it…..Even in purely practical terms there are compelling considerations requiring the challenge to be met.  A child ill fed is dulled in curiosity, lower in stamina, distracted from learning.  A worker ill-fed is less productive, more often absent from work.  The mounting cost of medical care for diet-related illnesses; remedial education required to overcome diet related slowness in school; all of these place a heavy economic burden on a society as a whole.”  

In the wake of the White House Conference, the U. S. Senate, Select Committee on Nutrition, under the bipartisan leadership of Senators George McGovern and Bob Dole, crafted a series of legislation to strengthen and expand federal food assistance.  Today, these programs provide a safety net against hunger, particularly during these difficult economic times.   And as we enter a global economy where there is a premium on a skilled and productive work force let us remember Nixon's words.  Hungry children simply cannot learn….no matter how good the teacher in the classroom.

Our nation has made great progress in the fight against hunger. Block grants would be a major retreat.   Let's stay the course and recognize food assistance as a high, national, bipartisan priority.   

 

About the Authors: Marshall Matz serves on the Board of the World Food Program-US; the Congressional Hunger Center and the Global Child Nutrition Foundation. He is a partner at OFW Law in Washington, D.C.mmatz@ofwlaw.com.  

Roger Szemraj is Counsel at OFW Law in Washington, D.C. rszemraj@ofwlaw.com.  Formerly he served as Chief of Staff to Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), and Associate Staff with the House Appropriations Committee, Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies.

 

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