NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Watching What You Eat

January 4, 2011

The program formerly known as Food Stamps (now dubbed the Supplemental Nutrition Access Program, or SNAP) enrolled more than 40 million people for the first time in March 2010.  By August that number had grown to 41,836,300.  At that point, nearly one in seven Americans were receiving monthly payments of approximately $133, for a monthly government outlay of more than $5.5 billion, according to Greg Beato, a contributing editor for Reason Magazine.

But the Great Recession isn't the whole story behind food stamps' Second Great Awakening.  The Department of Agriculture's Food & Nutrition Service (FNS) has been engaged in a lengthy campaign to boost the program's enrollment rates.

  • In 2000 just 16.9 million people were receiving food stamps, and only 50 percent of those who were eligible participated in the program.
  • Then FNS and the state agencies that administer SNAP began streamlining application processes and ramping up their outreach efforts.
  • By 2007, 66 percent of "eligibles" had been converted into participants, and preliminary data suggests that that percentage continued to increase in 2008 and 2009.

In part the FNS is pushing SNAP so hard because it believes the program functions as an economic stimulus.

  • In 2008, Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics, testified before Congress that expanding the food stamp program was the most effective way to "prime the economy's pump."
  • A $1 increase in payments, he suggested, boosts GDP by $1.73. Since then, annual food stamps outlays have jumped from $37 billion to more than $60 billion.

But while the government believes SNAP can bulk up the economy, it also believes the program can slenderize the body politic.  In 2009, FNS chief Kevin Concannon suggested the agency's goal is to overhaul America's diet, says Beato.

With its electronic benefit transfer system, the government can now intimately monitor and potentially influence the eating habits of more than 40 million Americans.

Source: Greg Beato, "Watching What You Eat," Reason Magazine, January 2011.

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