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SNAP Crackle Pop

Are the Republicans Sneakily Trying to Cut Food Stamps?

The House GOP’s farm bill would change how SNAP benefits are evaluated, and Democrats are furious.

Ting Shen/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Glenn “GT” Thompson, the Republican chair of the House Agriculture Committee

The farm bill, which governs nutrition, agriculture, and conservation policy, is up for renewal again, and the negotiations in Congress have hit a familiar road block: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, an anti-hunger program used by millions of low-income Americans. House Republicans and Senate Democrats have introduced competing versions of the bill, and they differ significantly when it comes to the so-called nutrition title, which includes funding for SNAP. That has prompted an increasingly nasty partisan fight—with expletives and all—in which Democrats accuse Republicans of cutting benefits for needy Americans, while Republicans accuse Democrats of distorting the truth about the GOP bill.

On Friday, Representative Glenn “GT” Thompson, the GOP chair of the House Agriculture Committee, introduced a farm bill that would change the formula by which SNAP benefits are determined. The Thrifty Food Plan, or TFP, estimates the costs needed to maintain a healthy diet, taking into consideration current food prices, dietary guidance, food composition, and household behaviors. Thompson’s plan would require that the process to update the TFP be “cost-neutral,” meaning that increases to the plan would be based primarily on inflation.

“Administrations of both parties, either one, would have to follow a prescriptive process which reflects past precedent,” Thompson told me earlier in May. Senate Democrats’ version of the farm bill, by contrast, does not make any changes to the way the TFP is currently calculated.

For most of SNAP’s decades-long history, benefits were determined on a cost-neutral basis. The TFP was only updated three times: in 1983, 1999, and 2006. That changed with the 2018 farm bill, which was approved while Republicans controlled Congress and the White House. That bill required the TFP to be reevaluated by 2022 and every five years thereafter. In 2021, the Biden administration updated the TFP to increase the maximum monthly SNAP benefit by 21 percent, averaging out to a little over $6 in benefits per person per day. This development outraged Republicans, who argued that the U.S. Department of Agriculture violated congressional review and resulted in the first-ever $1 trillion farm bill. An investigation from the Government Accountability Office later recommended that future updates to the TFP have greater transparency.

Opponents of Thompson’s farm bill worry that if the TFP is updated purely on a cost-neutral basis, the real value of the benefit will remain static, even as it is increased in accordance with inflation. The original TFP, which was implemented in 1975, also made several assumptions that are no longer relevant for life in the twenty-first century—such as the notion that families can spend two hours per day preparing meals or eat more than five pounds of beans per week.

Because of those assumptions, SNAP was “woefully inadequate” prior to the 2021 update, argued Poonam Gupta, a research associate in the Income and Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute. If the TFP is once again based on a cost-neutral calculus, it would mean a return to functionally static SNAP benefits. “In the long term, it sets a dangerous precedent. It would lead to a steady erosion of adequacy over time and limit purchasing power for households,” said Gupta, who co-authored a recent report warning about the potential side effects of a cost-neutrality policy for the Thrifty Food Plan.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that Thompson’s proposed changes to the TFP would save around $27 billion over the next decade; according to analysis by the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, this would result in the average per-person benefit decreasing by $7 between 2027 and 2031 and will be $15 less per person per month in 2032 and 2033.

Republicans bristle at this characterization, believing that it is based on a hypothetical increase that an administration might undertake in the future, and argue that the savings will allow further investment in anti-hunger programs today. In a briefing with reporters this week, a Republican committee staffer said that the CBO’s assessment was “funny math,” based on an estimate “that there is a specter of an administration taking an opportunity to use executive branch authority to increase the benefit in either 2027 or 2033.”

“Hungry people today don’t give a shit about three years from now or eight years from now,” the staffer said, contending that the savings from putting “guardrails” on the TFP would be reinvested in other nutrition programs. Thompson’s proposed farm bill, like the one put forward by Senate Democrats, would eliminate the prohibition on those convicted of drug-related felonies from receiving SNAP benefits.

Thompson is also quick to note that the proposed changes to SNAP would not affect current benefits. He has further argued that making the TFP cost-neutral would prevent a future Republican administration—led by, say, President Donald Trump—from unilaterally cutting SNAP benefits. “This would prevent a future administration from arbitrarily … cutting benefits, just like the Biden administration arbitrarily increased benefits,” Thompson argued earlier this month. “The benefits are going to stay the same, but we’re going to put in a firewall so that it can’t be abused in the future by an administration of either party.”

But this reasoning is met by skepticism from Democrats. When I asked Representative Jim McGovern, a Democratic member of the House Agriculture Committee, what he thought of the argument that making the TFP cost-neutral would prevent mischief by future presidents, he responded: “That’s a bunch of bullshit.”

“[Thompson] is here to protect vulnerable people? Give me a break,” McGovern scoffed. “This is about trying to throw a bone to the right wing; to basically say that we won’t be able to increase the benefit.”

As the TFP is based on several external factors, such as patterns of behavior and nutrition guidelines, it might be difficult for a Republican-led USDA to unilaterally cut those benefits. “Assuming that nothing in our environment is changing, I would say that it’s highly unlikely that evidence would point to a massive cut in SNAP benefits,” said Gupta.

But the Republican committee staffer countered that the criteria the USDA used to determine the changes to the TFP in 2021 could easily be reversed. For example, the 2021 reevaluation of the TFP relied on some new data sources for determining nutrient composition and food-consumption patterns. Among other changes, the 2021 update increased the calorie amount for what could be considered a healthy daily diet for a family and relied on food-price data collected directly from retailers.

“Democrats added 600 calories to the diet. Donald Trump could take 1,200 out of the diet. There you go, right there, that would probably be between an 8 to 10 percent decrease [in SNAP benefits],” the staffer said. “Joe Biden used a version of retailer data that had never been used before. Donald Trump could use a completely different database.”

It’s unclear how SNAP would fare under a second Trump administration. When he was in office, Trump proposed restrictions to SNAP that would have kicked hundreds of thousands of adults off their benefits. This effort was blocked in federal court, and any potential changes to the TFP under a future Republican president would likely also face legal challenges. Still, there’s some indication cutting SNAP would continue to be a GOP priority: Russ Vought, Trump’s former director of the Office of Management and Budget, shopped around a budget proposal to House Republicans last year that would have cut SNAP by $400 billion.

This year’s annual budget by the Republican Study Committee, generally an indication of policy priorities for conservative Republicans in the House, included a rescission of the 2021 reevaluation of the TFP and supported mandating future changes be cost-neutral. Because conservative Republicans generally want to implement cost-neutrality in reevaluating the TFP, Democrats believe Thompson’s overtures are disingenuous.

A Democratic House committee staffer characterized Thompson’s proposal as a “back door cut to SNAP.” “We have told Republicans since day one of negotiations that Democrats will not support a farm bill that takes food away from hungry families,” the staffer said. “The fact that Republicans have ignored our red line on this for over a year shows just how unserious they are about passing a truly bipartisan farm bill.”

Indeed, Thompson’s iteration of the farm bill is unlikely to be the final version. Senator Debbie Stabenow, the Democratic chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee who is retiring at the end of this year, has said she would not agree to any changes to the TFP. “I want a farm bill, but we’re not going to go backward on nutrition,” Stabenow told me this week.

Democrats in the House also appear united in their opposition to the Republican-introduced farm bill, which will be marked up in the House committee on May 23. “Obviously, I think what we want is a bipartisan farm bill. But when you put a $30 billion cut to Thrifty, it looks more like a partisan farm bill,” said Representative Nikki Budzinski, a Democrat on the committee who represents a rural Illinois district.

The nutrition title, which includes SNAP, comprises around 80 percent of the cost of the farm bill, highlighting its significance. SNAP is currently “the strongest lever we have against food insecurity,” Gupta said, and some research has found that the update to the TFP led to a reduction in poverty. A 2022 report by the Urban Institute found that the increase in SNAP benefits reduced poverty by 4.7 percent in the fourth quarter of 2021, as compared to a scenario without the reevaluation of the TFP.

“At the end of the day, every effort should be made to ensure that the policy is robust and driven by evidence,” Gupta argued.