How will latest efforts to reform food stamps impact Mississippi?

Published 2:00 am Sunday, April 23, 2017

One inescapable reality is Mississippi’s status as the poorest state in the union. That reality also makes the utilization and usage of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or food stamps an extremely relevant economic discussion in our state each year.

With a new administration, Republican majorities in Congress, and a new Secretary of Agriculture, change in the SNAP program is certain. The question then become what kind of changes and how will those changes impact current recipients.

Nationally, the cost of the program rose precipitously from $17 billion in 2000 to some $71 billion last year. Participation has risen from 17 million in 2000 to 44 million last year.

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So what’s the scope of that federal program in Mississippi? And what’s the economic impact in a state where over 21.9 percent of the state’s population were utilizing SNAP in 2014, according to USDA?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported in January of this year that in Fiscal Year 2015, “SNAP provided about $0.92 billion dollars in food benefits to a monthly average of 636,322 people in Mississippi. The program served 82.8 percent of those eligible for benefits in Mississippi in 2014.”

As to economic impact, USDA claims that “SNAP also has an economic multiplier effect; every dollar in new SNAP benefits results in $1.80 in total economic activity.”

Clearly, there is deep concern over the future of the SNAP program by advocates for the poor. Marian Wright Edleman of the Children’s Defense Fund – who has an extensive background in social activism in Mississippi from her work here in the 1960s – recently wrote:

“President Trump’s first full budget next month is expected to try to take much of the safety net away again by capping funding, proposing block grants and enacting deep cuts to programs like food stamps (SNAP), and other nutrition, child and family health supports, crucial early childhood programs, education and housing investments and accountability protections for disadvantaged and disabled children.”

But conservatives fear that SNAP is plagued with fraud and waste and see SNAP reforms as a relative key to reining in overall federal spending.

USDA confirms that 64 percent of SNAP recipients are children, the elderly or disabled citizens. In addition, the agency says that 22 percent of SNAP recipients work full time, are caregivers, or engaged in a monitored training program.

The last recession brought work-related changes to the SNAP program. One of the federal government reactions to the Great Recession in 2009 was to suspend work requirements for receiving federal welfare payments. That action was justified by the rapid evaporation of jobs and soaring unemployment rates among people who had been gainfully employed all of their working lives.

But when the recession was over, states began to reinstate work requirements for those who received food stamps. As of Jan. 1, 2016, some 22 states had transitioned from complete or partial waivers of the federal ABAWD (able bodied adults without dependents) requirements to eliminate or greatly decrease those waivers.

Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey and Tennessee completely eliminated the waivers in 2016.

With work-related concerns relatively stable, significant SNAP reform from the Trump administration is likely – according to draft executive orders leaked to the media – to include a push to restrict immigrants from the program.

Harvard University economist George Borjas recently examined the numbers of immigrants utilizing welfare programs and found that in 2016, 8.9 million U.S. households were headed by a noncitizen. Of those, almost 42 percent received Medicaid, food stamps or cash assistance.

Mississippi’s relatively low percentage of immigrants should make that aspect of SNAP reform less impactful here, but it will be part of a larger national debate. In a state where one-in-five citizens are on food stamps, any change in that program will have economic impacts – and some may well involve unintended consequences.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at