While almost all politicians agree on some amount of assistance for the needy, the manner in which that money is spent quickly becomes contentious. Currently, some members of the Republican Party, including House Speaker Paul Ryan and Presidential candidate and former Governor Jeb Bush, believe that “opportunity grants”, or block grants, are an effective way of dispersing money for social programs. Poverty policy can be one of the most divisive issues in politics, and programs like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), most commonly known as the food stamp program, is often caught in the middle.
Federal funding for state or municipal programming can come in one of two ways either from categorical grants or block grants. A categorical grant is an amount of money that is allocated to one specific program and the federal government dictates the way that this money can be spent. Contrastingly, a block grant is a sum of money that is given to the state or municipal government with few barriers. Block grants give states substantially more leeway in how to allocate this money and what stipulations surround it.
Members of the Republican Party wish to turn funding for essential programs such as SNAP, child care vouchers, housing vouchers, and more into block grants. This will be detrimental to service users across the board. Interestingly, we have the opportunity to deeply understand this, as similar changes were made to welfare benefits in the mid-1990’s. Although TANF is still considered a categorical grant, the welfare reform package of the mid-1900’s, among other things, loosened the federal rules for this money, resulting in more autonomy for the states in this matter.
There is much data comparing the response from SNAP and the response from TANF during the last recession, which is explained more deeply in a recent Washington Post article on this topic. While the data can become very technical and complicated, the end result is that, overall, SNAP was more responsive and better able to provide immediate assistance than TANF.
Pushing food stamp benefits from categorical grants to block grant programs gives the states more power over how to spend SNAP money and, more importantly, who they will give that money to. While some states would be likely to impose a nutritional benefit program similar to the current, many others would not.
For example, several states, including Florida, Tennessee, Arizona, and Texas, have either introduced or passed bills requiring welfare (TANF) recipients to be drug tested before receiving their benefits. This plan has been abhorrent from the start; further stigmatizing welfare recipients and costing the states undue amounts of money for the testing.
In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker has already attempted to pass legislation requiring SNAP benefit recipients to be drug tested. However, it has yet to be implemented because federal law does not give states much ability to change food stamp benefit requirements. However, should SNAP become part of a larger block grant, this could quickly change.
Should food stamps, and other social programs such as child care and housing vouchers, become block grants they could fall prey to similar stipulations. Families who rely on SNAP benefits to adequately feed their children could be in danger of losing their benefits because of an adult’s substance use.
According to Feeding America, approximately 16 million children in American are food insecure; that’s nearly one in every five kids. The average class size is 26, meaning that in every classroom, there are four or five children who are not sure if they will have food in the evenings and on weekends. As a society, we have a duty to protect these children, and putting SNAP benefits, or any other social program, into block grants will not accomplish that.