June 22, 2018
This year’s farm bill is the latest showcase of how partisan Washington has become, and how politics are taking center stage when it comes to what was once noncontroversial policy. In the middle of the debate are the more than 42 million recipients of the federal food assistance program — and the 263,105 retailers that participate in it. On this vote that won by a razor-thin margin, 20 Republicans voted against the bill, along with every Democrat.
Conservative Republicans have been hoping to limit SNAP and other assistance programs for years, making them only available to people with very specific needs and for a limited time. The modifications made by this bill are likely to ensure that fewer people take advantage of SNAP benefits — which USDA indicates are an average of $125 per month per household. Critics say the biggest reason that fewer people will take advantage of the program lies with individual states, which may not be able to ramp up training programs in order to accommodate the people who need food assistance — even though the bill provides $1 billion annually to fund the new program. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that 1.2 million people — 3.7% of the total who participate in SNAP — would not be able to receive benefits under these changes.
While this is a small percentage of the total households relying on the government assistance program, the change would have a more immediate impact on the retailers in the program. According to USDA statistics, SNAP recipients spent more than $63 billion at retailers during the last fiscal year. This change has potential to impact different retailers in different ways. If work training programs are lacking in a single state or area, stores there may suffer more.
On the whole, retail groups have not spoken out on this provision — not when it was first introduced, and not when it was passed. A Thursday night statement about the bill’s passage from the Food Marketing Institute does not mention changes to SNAP eligibility. Instead, the statement focuses on things in the bill that FMI had lobbied for, including a permanent ban on EBT fees for SNAP, privacy for some grocers participating in the program, and maintaining program efficiencies. The National Grocers Association put out a statement on this version of the bill when it was released in April, and it also doesn’t mention the proposed eligibility changes.
Perhaps the issues was not addressed because many think they have little chance of being included in the final bill. The Senate version of the bill does not make eligibility changes to SNAP, which are a likely nonstarter in the more evenly distributed Senate. This version of the bill was even soundly defeated in the House in May.
However, strange things have happened in Washington since President Trump took office in 2017, and no potential legislative policy should be discounted or overlooked. Changes to SNAP eligibility could be a real possibility, and retailers ought to prepare their arguments to make sure that the business from food assistance will continue to flow.