Food brings us together and creates the conditions to be healthy and happy. As we give thanks this season, let’s ensure all Kentuckians can put food on the table with the help of one of the best hunger-fighting, poverty-reducing, health-improving tools we have.
The federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, plays a critical role in improving the health and well-being of 506,000 Kentuckians, including workers, children, seniors and veterans. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, SNAP helps one in 10 underpaid Kentucky workers put food on the table — most commonly people who work in the service industry, offices and administrative support and sales. In fact, there’s a 1 in 4 chance that the cashier you bought your Thanksgiving groceries from used SNAP to help buy their own. SNAP supplements Kentuckians’ food budget with an average of $1.32 per person, per meal, which is about 20% of the average food cost per day. Though a modest benefit, it goes a long way to help prevent hunger.
By reducing food insecurity, SNAP keeps us healthier, too. Research shows that compared to similar low-income people, SNAP recipients are less likely to stay home sick, to need medical attention or to forego care because of cost. SNAP recipients spend 24% less on health care annually and have reduced rates of hospitalization. And kids participating in SNAP suffer less from anemia, tooth decay, asthma, behavioral problems, anxiety and depression.
In addition to fighting hunger and improving health, SNAP is one of the best anti-poverty programs we have. In Kentucky alone, SNAP keeps 164,000 of us out of poverty, including 73,000 children. In 2018, the federal government boosted local economies in Kentucky with SNAP benefits totaling $854 million. For the 4,338 SNAP-participating retailers such as supermarkets, convenience stores and farmers markets, these dollars helped to keep doors open and hire staff.
Unfortunately, barriers to participation erected by the state in 2018 and 2019 have caused nearly 30,000 Kentuckians to lose help buying groceries. Many who have lost SNAP because they failed to meet a work reporting requirement (the bulk of those who have had benefits stripped) live in areas of the state that still lack an adequate number of jobs. They may face discriminatory barriers to employment, struggle to get enough work hours on a consistent basis due to irregular employer scheduling or have a hard time navigating the layers of red tape necessary to report hours.
Others have lost benefits because of a new state rule that cuts off SNAP from non-custodial parents who are behind on their child support payments. While parents do the best they can to pay court-ordered support, layoffs, illness, injury or other factors that reduce incomes to the point of poverty can leave people unable to pay. These challenges should not impact their access to assistance buying groceries, including for other people who live with them.
Until last year, the state routinely waived work reporting requirements for communities facing economic challenges. It should return to the practice of doing so for counties where there just aren’t enough jobs to go around. We should allow SNAP to help meet the immediate nutritional needs of non-custodial parents while they get back on their feet and on track with child support payments. And we should also remove the ban on SNAP participation for people who have already served their time for past drug-related felony offenses. The more Kentuckians that SNAP helps to feed, the healthier and more productive we will be.
Many Kentuckians will donate food, serve in soup kitchens and take meals to neighbors in the coming weeks — and many will give even when it feels difficult financially to do so. This generosity strengthens our communities, but we can’t win the fight against hunger, poverty and poor health through charity alone. Protecting and strengthening SNAP is another crucial way for us to come together to support our commonwealth.
Dustin Pugel is a policy analyst with the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy. He can be emailed through Anna Baumann at email@example.com.