Funding to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or informally known as food stamps) is set to take a big hit on Friday with the expiration of expansions passed as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). It’s important to see just how far those dollars went to lift Americans out of poverty. SNAP, bolstered by the ARRA extensions, kept 4.0 million Americans out of poverty in 2012 alone. A sad contrast is with another vital safety net program that also benefited from expansions in ARRA, but which saw the ARRA expansions fade away much more quickly—unemployment insurance.
The poverty-reducing effects of unemployment insurance declined rapidly beginning in 2011 as the share of unemployed workers eligible for UI began falling. Further, in 2012 Congress provided fewer weeks of federal UI benefits to long-term unemployed workers (clawing back extensions in ARRA).
The declining protection offered by UI as the ARRA extensions fade away could well be the future of SNAP. This would be both a human and an economic disaster. While the cuts will have real impacts on the lives of millions of American households, it will put a further drag on economic recovery. Food stamps are essentially being attacked as the last vestige of expansionary policy that hasn’t been stamped out yet by the sharp move towards austerity in recent years. It’s a mistake to think these cuts won’t have lasting effects on families, particularly children, but also will have deleterious effects on our recovery.