Monday, September 14, 2020

Why we need Universal SNAP

No American should ever go hungry. It is a simple and powerful message with a clear, simple solution: Universal SNAP. 

 The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, provides qualified low-income people with an average of $127 a month to help purchase food. The problem is, of course -- as with any means-tested program -- that many people fall through the qualification cracks, fail to apply, or are actively kicked off by Republicans' efforts to restrict access with work requirements. The solution is to increase SNAP and make it universal. Have the government send everyone a card that every month is automatically loaded with more funds. Everyone gets the card regardless of age or income. Such a program would only cost about $600 billion a year. That is less than the military budget ($705 billion) and a fraction of the cost of universal basic income or Medicare for All.

I think politically, as a policy to improve society in the near term, and as part of a long term plan to build support for more progressive reform, it is a great idea with almost no institutional support. It's a relatively cheap way to prove the value of universal programs over means-tested ones. I suspect it has not gained traction because it has fallen in the uncanny valley of being both radical and not radical enough.

On one level, I suspect most people believe the current means-tested SNAP program is good enough, but it simply isn't. There are currently 26 million adults who report their households sometimes or often don’t have enough to eat. This is a devastating tragedy it is well within our power to address.

On another level, much of the nation's political energy comes from middle class people and is directed toward big ticket universal programs which also address big concerns for middle class people. This includes plans like universal free college, universal pre-K, and Medicare for All. While universal SNAP would be a modest financial help to middle class people, hunger is not a real pressing concern.

Finally, the other big focus of political activism is big, transformative ideas like Universal Basic Income. Compared to that, Universal SNAP definitely seems small and would in theory be made redundant if UBI were ever adopted.

I think it is unlikely, though, that the United States would in a single step go from a stingy, heavily-tested social safety net to a full, high-price tag UBI in a single step. This is where the genius of Universal SNAP comes in. There is a clear moral case for it, it is very easy to message, and it would provide real help to address a clear, distinct problem. “No one should go hungry in America” is an easy message to get behind, and this would accomplish that. It is also easy to administer, relatively low cost, and a way to prove the value of universal social programs. It's a first step to a better society.

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