Will the White House’s SNAP reforms benefit recipients?

Jeff Cockrell | Mar 09, 2018

Sections Public Policy

Collections IGM Poll

In February, the White House announced proposed changes to the United States’ food-assistance program—officially known as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP. Currently, the program provides funds (via electronic benefits cards) for low-income individuals and families to spend on groceries at participating retailers; under the proposed changes, participants would receive less money for discretionary purchases but would also receive a “food box” from the government containing various shelf-stable and non-perishable dietary staples. 

In announcing the proposed changes, Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, predicted that purchasing food-box items in bulk will allow the government to procure those items more cheaply than individuals could purchase them on their own—an outcome that would mitigate the $213 billion in funding cuts that the government has proposed for SNAP over the next 10 years. Critics have suggested that the changes amount to a big-government intrusion into people’s personal dietary choices, as well as a subversion of the free market’s role in allocating food products.

Would changes like those proposed by the White House improve the well-being of SNAP recipients, or help in the fight against hunger? To find out, Chicago Booth’s Initiative on Global Markets polled its US Economic Experts Panel. A majority of panelists responded that no, such changes would be neither an improvement for program participants nor a step toward greater food security.

“We should be giving more choice to recipients,” wrote Princeton’s José Scheinkman, “with a conditional cash transfer program, instead of adopting this central-planning proposal.”

Larry Samuelson of Yale added that the bureaucracy required to implement the changes could raise costs, rather than lowering them. “Adding a procurement-and-distribution system to SNAP would increase costs, without obviously making the program more effective,” he wrote.

David Autor, MIT
“Food stamp recipients are generally not starving, but they are poor. Fungibility of resources [is] more useful than boxes of prefab meals.”
Response: Agree

Barry Eichengreen, University of California, Berkeley
“Boxes might ‘nudge’ recipients in healthier directions, but this is uncertain. Moreover, delivery and special diet problems would be severe.”
Response: Agree

Kenneth Judd, Stanford
“In the past (’50s, ’60s) before food stamps, poor people were given surplus peanut butter and cheese. Not a good idea then or now.”
Response: Agree

Caroline Hoxby, Stanford
“Since SNAP can be restricted to certain SKUs, it is silly to debate in-kind provision. Nutrition could be improved and specificity maintained.”
Response: Uncertain

Richard Schmalensee, MIT
“The answer depends on the importance of recipient choices that make them happy but are nutritionally poor.”
Response: Uncertain