CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, we'll get an update on the humanitarian crisis in Syria. But first, we turn to an issue that affects one out of every seven humans in America, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program - SNAP. Back in 2009, in the depths of the recession, President Obama increased SNAP benefits using stimulus funds, but the temporary increase expired this past Friday.
So now a family getting food stamp benefits, which averages about $275 a month, will start getting $36 a month less. So how much of an impact does this actually have on families and the government's budget? We've called on Isabel Sawhill to answer that question for us. She's a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution. And she also serves as co-director of the Budgeting for National Priorities Project and co-director of the Center on Children and Families. Isabel, welcome back to the program.
ISABEL SAWHILL: Thanks for having me.
HEADLEE: Let's talk first about who exactly uses SNAP funds because we heard a lot during the great recession about middle-class families falling down and needing SNAP funds, maybe food assistance, for the very first time ever. Who's using them now? Is there still some of these formerly middle-class families struggling, is it mostly people who were in the poor or poverty level?
SAWHILL: This is a program for low-income families or people who may have lost a job and been middle-class and then fallen down the ladder or had some other emergency. It's the biggest safety net program we have, the one that reaches the most people. It provides some significant benefits to them to buy food, but it's a fairly skimpy amount of money - it's less than $5 a day per person. So when you think about trying to feed yourself on less than $5 a day, you can see it's not an overly generous program.
HEADLEE: What does the average user of SNAP funds look like?
SAWHILL: Most SNAP families are families with children under 18. There are quite a number of elderly families and also families on disability. There are also a smaller group of adults who don't have children and it's quite a debate about how much assistance they should get. And there have been efforts to limit their eligibility to a shorter time period. That will be a big controversy going forward. Many states have been serving those adults without children in recent years as part of their efforts to cope with the recession. But I think as we begin to recover from the recession and as there are pressures to reduce spending, that group will be a big focus of attention. But it's not the primary group that's being served right now.
HEADLEE: We've heard a lot of talk, Isabel, about veterans losing benefits - food assistance money - over the past few days. Is that the group that you're talking about?
SAWHILL: Well, they would be part of that group, but certainly they are not the only members of that group. If you were, let's say, a young man, let's say, in your thirties, and you had a blue-collar job of some sort, and you lost it as part of this recession, and you're having a hard time getting back into the job market, you might have very little in the way of savings to fall back on, and you might be relying heavily on food stamps, and the benefits have been cut.
HEADLEE: To most people, $36 a month doesn't seem like that big of a deal. I mean, how much of a difference does that nearly $40 make for a family?
SAWHILL: I think it doesn't sound like a huge amount to most middle-class Americans. On the other hand, if you're struggling, if you're on a very tight budget, if you've lost your job, then it can loom a little larger. Thirty-six dollars a month for a family of four, not huge, but probably something that will be missed at the bottom of the income distribution.
HEADLEE: On the other end of that equation, are we talking about a large amount of savings to the government by cutting this $36 a month?
SAWHILL: We're not. We spend $80 billion a year on the program, and it has grown very rapidly in recent years since about 2008. And some of that was because more people needed the assistance as a result of the recession, and some of it is because we actually bumped up the benefits quite a bit as part of the Recovery Act. The elimination of that temporary bump up is what we're talking about now. So you can think of it as just taking the level of spending back to what it was before the recession, or you can say to yourself, well, we still have unemployment rates that are over 7 percent, so this is not a good time to be cutting back on this assistance, particularly since people are now losing their unemployment benefits.
HEADLEE: That's very true. If you're just joining us, we're talking about cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program - also called SNAP - and how that affects federal spending. Our guest is Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution. Congress is debating a large farm bill right now, and that farm bill actually includes more cuts to SNAP that go beyond just letting these temporary increases expire. Can you tell us where that legislation stands?
SAWHILL: Well, they are two very different bills - one in the Senate, one in the House. The Senate cuts the program by about $4 billion, and the House bill has much more draconian cuts of about $40 billion.
HEADLEE: Wait, I want - let's examine that for just a second 'cause you said the entire SNAP program costs about $80 billion, right?
HEADLEE: So the House is hoping to cut SNAP in half?
SAWHILL: Well, let's see. We need to get the years right on this. And I don't think they're talking about cutting it in half in a single year.
HEADLEE: I see. So that would be $40 billion in cuts over a period of time.
HEADLEE: OK, good. I just wanted to be totally clear on that. Continue.
SAWHILL: So I think that we do need to reduce the high deficits we've been running in recent years, but that now is not the best time to be stepping on the brakes when the economy is as fragile as it is. We also, I think, shouldn't be cutting spending on programs for the poor. We do need to save money, but this is not the first place I would go to find savings in the government's budget.
HEADLEE: Well, that begs the question, Isabel, where would be the first place you would go to find savings?
SAWHILL: I would think that the most important area that needs to be looked at over the longer-term are the big entitlement programs, like Medicare and Social Security. I know those are very popular programs, probably more popular than food stamps, but there are many well-off people who are getting Social Security and Medicare benefits whereas there are no really well-off people who are getting food stamps. And I think that having a basic safety net in this country is important, and it's already a rather thin safety net. So again, this is not the first place I would cut. I think we could also cut loopholes in the tax system and save money in that way. There are many tax deductions that are going to high-income people that we could pare back and save a lot of money in that way.
HEADLEE: And yet, there's a lot of concern, especially among conservatives, over fraud in programs like SNAP and frauds in public assistance programs. Isabel, is there a great deal of fraud where a lot of government money is going illegally to people who don't really need it?
SAWHILL: I think a certain amount of fraud is inevitable, and there certainly is some fraud in the food stamp program. A lot of it is because store employees or owners are trafficking in food stamps, taking people's food stamps and giving them money or something else in return when they shouldn't. But I don't think that the amount of fraud is excessive, and I think we should keep a watch on it. And integrity in the program matters, but I don't think you can save a lot of money by cutting back on fraud 'cause there just isn't that much in savings to be had.
HEADLEE: You know, Isabel, I have to ask you, many people thought - when we saw so many middle-class families falling below the poverty line, mostly because of unemployment during the Great Recession, there was a debate over whether or not this would change public attitudes towards poverty programs. In other words, a lot of people don't have a problem cutting assistance to the poor because they don't identify with the poor. They think that's somebody else and will not be me. People thought that might change after the Great Recession because so many people did become poor, did become in need of these very programs like SNAP. Has the attitude changed among the public? I'm not talking about Congress - that's a different animal altogether - but what about public opinion?
SAWHILL: I'm not sure whether public opinion has changed a lot as a result of the recession. It may have, I just don't know the data in that area. What I would say is that most Americans are fiercely proud about being financially independent, and even low-income people - with some exceptions of course - would much prefer to have a job and to be earning their own income than to be dependent on any form of government assistance. So I don't think we have a lot of slackers in the United States - we have some of course - but I don't think it's a huge problem.
HEADLEE: Isabel Sawhill is a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution. That's a research and policy institute here in Washington, D.C. Isabel, thank you so much.
SAWHILL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.