SNAP: Rethinking the food stamp program locally

Originally published in the #5 Poppycock:

With this issue’s half-cocked concept, we turn our eyes to SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps, costs the American taxpayer some $80 billion annually. We take a look at how Portland and Oregon to a greater extent could rethink how this financial relief is allocated, and how our local economy might benefit.

Renamed SNAP in 2010, the Food Stamps program remains the same as it has, mostly, for decades. It is the vast majority of funding allocated by the Farm Bill, it is a point of great contention for politicos, and it is constantly under threat of reduction despite a need by many as not just supplemental income, but a cornerstone for many families.

When we get right down to it, it’s a handout from the government. Tax money used to support families same as unemployment, WIC, and welfare. SNAP is financial relief for one of life’s constant, increasing expenditures, but it’s just money. I mean, if money is money and relief is relief, could we just rethink how we use that money?

In October of this year, Oregon released benefits exceeding $98 million. That’s approximately $225 per household or $126 per person receiving benefits. SNAP is basically a gift certificate, it’s handicapped money. It’s money that can’t do everything that real money can do. You can buy candy, but not vitamins. You can buy fresh lobster, but not diapers. You can buy cake, but not medicine. With junk food allowed but soap and toothpaste not, we did away with the “supplemental nutrition” premise and examined the issue without it as a limitation in our systems. If you can do your grocery shopping at a CVS and a Chevron, but can’t buy medication or gasoline, then I think we can all agree that nutrition is taking a back seat.

We also saw an issue with limiting a buyer’s rights. If this isn’t about nutrition, then it needs to be about straightforward financial relief. If the household is receiving $225 in relief, why shouldn’t they decide what that relief is spent on? Essentially, we need to think of a better way Oregonians can spend and profit from their benefits while getting the relief they need. The ideas we came up with had to meet three criteria: scaleable, local, and sustainable.

Data isn’t readily available on the buyer’s habits, nor is it easily released as to which stores and companies are receiving a majority of the buyer’s attention.

One such piece of information was released in Oklahoma a few years ago. In 2012, Walmart received approx. 50% of the $1 billion dollars in benefits paid out that year.

Reports show that buying local keeps more dollars in the community: 48 cents on the dollar stay local compared to the 14 cents when buying from a national chain. This 34 cent difference sounds like the kind of margin that could change a community.

So, how do we make those dollars stay local, improve and enrich our communities while delivering the relief families and individuals need, without losing money?

The Hybrid

We deliver 70-80% or current SNAP benefits as is, and then we add a local discount system. Find 50, 100, maybe 500 locally owned and operated stores and companies that will honor a partially subsidized discount on goods and services. This is where the buying power of the consumer is found. There is more to life than just food, and sometimes needs change month to month. The flexibility of a local discount card allows the individual and the household to decide what they need this month. A family gets the relief they need in food and then has some flexibility in other areas of their lives. Also, it introduces a group of local business owner to a wealth of new consumers with incentive to shop with them.

Discount Card

Tweaking that somewhat, what if we took all limits off of SNAP benefits, and created a capped discount card? 50% off public transit, 40% off grocery food items, 30% off local clothing retailers, 20% off household items at local stores, 10% of car maintenance and select other local services (everything from remodeling, cleaning, improving homes and maybe even services like insurance with local companies and discounted warranties to ensure things last families longer). Same financial benefits, capped at a set amount per household per month, but the added bonuses of buying empowerment and 100% local spending. An economy keeping 48 cents on every dollar is one growing while everyone gets the help they need from the money we already allocate.

Local Store Credit

What if we actually increased benefits, but the local economy footed the difference? If the difference between chain and local in revenue circulation is 34 cents, than why not offer a discount for shopping local that is less than the gap? You see it all the time with secondhand stores. You could get $50 cash for your goods you’re selling, or get $65 in-store credit. Apply this to food stamps, and we’ve got a growing economy. You can have your benefits as a family, but what you spend locally only costs you 85 cents on the dollar compared to chain stores. Your family gets $225 a month in benefits if you want to shop at 7-11 and Walmart. Choose People’s Co-op and CHOP Butchery? That’s $258.25 in benefits.

Any of these ideas could include monthly deals and coupon books for those receiving benefits. Additional savings if recipients shop with this store or that one, locally owned. Maybe there is a credit with every household that is worth a home gardening kit designed to get a home growing part of their diet; the “teach a man to fish,” theory.

The two things standing in the way of this are obviously the buying power of this money (strictly allocated to certain goods as it is), and the lobbyists against it. Companies who partner with the US government as well as lobby for the current system have a lot to lose if restrictions change. I don’t need to point out Walmart’s stake in the SNAP market, but what about 7-11’s stake.

7-11 and the convenience store lobby has spent a lot of money to make their point that SNAP benefits should be able to be used in their locations. There’s $80 billion a year at stake here. Not to mention the stake of WIC partnership companies; maybe a bit more than a little to lose in the US grain production business.

Whether we do away with the food stamps all together and adopt a capped discount system, or if we offer subsidies to a select list of local businesses in order to encourage competition, or if we offer the scaled value system leaning toward local purchasing, we need to refuse to accept that this is the best we can do and be constantly refining the system with pilot programs and test groups. We also need to be tracking buying habits to see if the system is even doing what it was intended for. Are we throwing money away on junk food and fresh lobster, or are families actually spending the money on nutritional food stuffs? I think we might be shocked if we ever got to see those numbers as a nation.

In just one month, if we spent locally the $98 million in SNAP benefits, that would be a gross total of $47 million of revenue in our state each month that will stay local. If every dollar was spent in a chain? Just $13 million. It’s no more or less help than families were receiving before, no more expense to the taxpayer, but an increase in the wealth in our communities and does with government handouts what we need to see more of, making every dollar do more than it did before. Shopping local and empowering even the poorest of our community is that little difference that could make all the difference in Oregon if we can break our habits and makes a few changes in a system that isn’t going away any time soon and arguably went off the rails when we approved lobster but not vitamin supplements.


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