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Revolution on an Empty Stomach?
In October, 2011 Slovenian-born philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, addressed a crowd of nearly four-hundred residents of Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park. Zizek—revered as much for his irreverence as for his acuity—waxed poetic on the theme of social possibility. “On the one hand,” he said, “everything seems to be possible. You can travel to the moon, you can become immortal by biogenetics…but look at the field of society and economy…[and] there almost everything is considered impossible. You want to raise taxes by little bit for the rich. They tell you it’s impossible…You want more money for health care, they tell you [it’s] impossible…There’s something wrong in a world where you are promised to be immortal but cannot spend a little bit more for healthcare. Maybe we need to set our priorities straight here. We don’t want higher standard of living. We want a better standard of living.”
In a country that values convenience over wellness it’s rare to find enlightened social policies that can successfully discriminate between higher and better standards of living. SNAP is one.
Since 1964 the Food Stamp Program, presently known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), has assisted low-income families and individuals in meeting basic nutritional needs; last year alone the $78 billion program prevented nearly 5 million Americans from slipping into poverty.
Modernity promises us progress but not justice. Occasionally they collide, but often they diverge. Apple, for instance, is on pace to sell 50 million iPhones in the U.S. this year, a figure that’s roughly equivalent to the nearly 45 million Americans currently experiencing food insecurity.
We must demand not a higher standard of living, but rather a better one.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecure households as those “uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all their members because they had insufficient money or other resources for food.” Food insecurity, like most socio-economic classifications, cleaves to racial fault lines. Black and “Hispanic” households (“Hispanic” is a governmental designation, not mine) experience food insecurity at rates 300% higher than white families.
According to the USDA, 43% of SNAP participants are white, 33% are Black, 19% are “Hispanic,” 2% are Asian American, and 2% are Native American. Currently, 76% of SNAP benefits go to households with children, 16% to households with persons with disabilities, and 9% to households with seniors. Moreover, 48% of households that receive SNAP benefits have at least one working adult and in 2011 the average SNAP participant received about $133.70 a month (or about $4.40 a day).
Though SNAP’s record of poverty reduction is unassailable and the sentiment that brought it into being is laudable, many of its eligibility guidelines provide disincentives for “asset building.” SNAP eligibility rules currently require that participants 1) be at or below 130% of the Federal Poverty Level or $2,008 (about $24,100 a year) for a three-person family in fiscal year 2012 and 2) possess assets of $2,000 or less ($3,000 or less for families with seniors of persons with disabilities).
There are two interlocking deficiencies inherent to this otherwise widely successful policy: 1) its asset limits are too low and 2) they diverge widely on a state-by-state scale. Disqualification for SNAP on a basis of a low asset limit can discourage savings and prevent families from making long- and short-term investments – such as the purchase of reliable cars – that can aid them in avoiding or escaping poverty.
Further, asset limits vary so widely by state that they represent deep sources of confusion for potential participants. Labyrinthine state-by-state regulations can also contribute to easily avoidable administrative costs.
Low asset limits also run counter to the assumptions on which the ideologies of public assistance programs are premised: the future expectation of reasonable levels of self-sufficiency. Increasing asset ceilings or eliminating them entirely will likely incentivize saving and “asset building.” Low asset limits can induce low-income families who have assets slightly above the $2,000 threshold to spend them down to qualify for assistance. And once families qualify for support, they must keep their asset accumulation below established limits to continue receiving assistance. This is counterproductive and must be addressed immediately.
In early 2010 President Obama proposed to establish a “national asset limit floor of $10,000 for working age, non-disabled individuals” participating in SNAP or the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program. Although President Obama’s proposal did not receive enough congressional support necessary for its passage, it should be re-introduced this legislative season and passed immediately.
President Obama’s proposal would coordinate disparate state-based program guidelines and allow low-income families to remain eligible for critical programs even if they hold modest assets. (Asset limits generally apply to liquid assets, such as self-reported cash on hand, savings or checking accounts. Depending on the state and program, asset limits may also apply to cars but the value of an owner-occupied home is typically excluded in determining asset eligibility.) Instituting a sensible, consistent and clear asset ceiling for public assistance programs will encourage savings and offer low-income families an opportunity for future financial stability.
I urge Congress to raise the asset limit immediately on low-income, working age, non-disabled individuals and their families for federally funded programs like SNAP. In a country that systematically refuses to consider full-employment or living-wage legislation, a modest nudge to the asset threshold on federally funded anti-poverty programs constitutes both progress and justice.
Please see Asset Coalition Toolkit at http://www.assetcoalitiontoolkit.org/about for more information on the linkages between asset-building and poverty reduction.