This panel discussion was recorded on June 26, 2023 as part of the Duke in DC Office’s Beyond Talking Points series. The goal of the conversation is to contribute to the Farm Bill reauthorization proceedings by raising the visibility of key issues related to nutrition assistance programs.
Jeff Harris: Good afternoon, everybody and thanks so much for joining us here at Duke and DC’s Briefing on the Farm Bill and Nutritional Assistance Programs. This is our second briefing in this Beyond Talking Point series focused on the Farm Bill. The first conversation looked at the intersection of agriculture and climate within the context of the Farm Bill. Today I’m joined by three outstanding faculty to talk about nutritional assistance programs. We have Norbert Wilson, Director of the World Food Policy Center at the Sanford School, and Professor of Food Economics and Community at the Duke Divinity School. Joined by his co-author Alfonso Flores-Lagunes, Professor of Economics from Syracuse University’s Maxwell School, and Senior Research Associate in the Center for Policy Research. And finally, Carolyn Barnes, Assistant Professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke.
The structure of today’s conversation will be a half hour conversation amongst the panelists and then a half hour for Q&A with the audience. For now, I’d like to turn the conversation over to our faculty to begin the conversation. We know in recent weeks there’s been lots of focus on nutritional assistance programs in light of the recently passed debt ceiling deal. But we’ve also lived through a somewhat natural experiment of the last three plus years during the COVID-19 pandemic and some changes to the programs made then. Professor Wilson, may we start with you a little bit about some of the research you’ve been looking at considering some of the policies and regulations passed in this debt ceiling deal, and then looking ahead to how that’s going to influence the upcoming Farm Bill.
Norbert Wilson: Sure, thank you so much for this opportunity to share with you all. It’s been an important period thinking about what’s happening with SNAP, especially as we run up to the Farm Bill that is being discussed. Reauthorization will need to take place later this fall, or at least that’s when the current Farm Bill expires, and a new Farm Bill would need to be implemented.
It was an interesting experience and exchange with my co-author Alfonso here. He and I began a series of conversations around food security and there had been a lingering question for me. When you look at the data that comes out of USDA, you see that individuals who are food insecure are different, that there are differences along racial and ethnic lines. One of the things that really bothered me was seeing higher rates of food insecurity amongst African American households relative to others. In conversations with folks, some would say, ‘well, if you took into account things like income, educational attainment, who’s the head of the household, other factors that those differences would disappear or at least would mitigate that gap that we see in the data.’ But that explanation never really sat well with me. And so engaging Alfonso, we worked with some other colleagues, Hugo Jales and also Judith Lu, who’s now at Oklahoma. We began a study that started a few years ago looking back at the recession pre, during and after the recession and trying to understand why we see differences in food insecurity among biracial and ethnic groups and also immigrant status.
One of the things that was important in looking at that is we looked at the difference and not just whether or not someone is food insecure or rather a household is food insecure. We also looked at the severity. So, once you are food insecure, how food insecure are you? We saw some really striking differences. What we were able to find is that if you considered all those typical household characteristics that might influence whether a person is or a household is food insecure such as age and number of children and education and what have you, we still saw a gap that existed. That gap still existed when you considered SNAP, which in some ways is surprising, but in other ways it’s not. If you think about what the SNAP program does, it provides benefits to all people who are eligible who choose to participate. There are no differences in whether household characteristics like race matter, as you might imagine. But one of the things that that led us to believe is that even though SNAP lowers food insecurity across households, and this is important, I want us to be very clear – SNAP is a critical program to help address food insecurity in the United States. However, what SNAP doesn’t do is it doesn’t squeeze out that disparity that we saw between Hispanic and white households and Black or African American households and white households.
So that led to this study that we recently published that looked at what if we change aspects of the SNAP program? Could there be ways of reducing the disparity if we must adopt a slightly different approach. Instead of thinking about food security, we looked at that food resource gap. How much additional money is needed for a household to meet its food needs, which is not the same thing as food security or food insecurity, but it approximates that. By using simulations, what this project was able to do was we were able to look at SNAP as in sort of three components: So, an eligibility component first – so whether you’re eligible or not. A participation component – whether you participate if you’re eligible. Then a generosity component – which is how much additional revenue do you receive from SNAP if you are able to participate or if you choose to participate. Looking across those three different components, what we were able to see is that it’s important that participation plays a critical role. That participation can help reduce some of the disparity that we saw between Black and Hispanic households relative to the white household counterparts. While generosity is an important thing, and participation also can have some differential effects, it was really about eligibility. Of course, as we are thinking about the current moment, we’re in, thinking about the current conversations around the debt ceiling and then what’s going to roll into the Farm Bill in the coming months, this issue of eligibility is going to be an important conversation about who actually gets to participate and what are the rules that may shape this.
Now again, I want to make the point that SNAP plays an important role in reducing food insecurity. It helps families meet their resource food gaps. How this program is implemented is something that I know Carolyn’s going to talk a good bit about, and it is an important way of thinking about it. Sort of how people are able to participate is a critical part, but also how people are able to participate is going to depend on the rules that are in place around SNAP, who’s eligible and whether or not there, once they’re eligible, if they choose to participate, and importantly how long they stay participating in the program. I’ll stop there with initial comments, and I will hand it over to Alfonso to talk about one of the areas of eligibility, I think is really important that this play an important role in the conversations of the debt ceiling. I think could potentially show up again in the Farm Bill negotiations.
Alfonso Flores-Lagunes: Thank you very much to the organizers for the opportunity to participate in this panel. It is really such a joy and honor. I will go ahead and tell you a little bit about some thoughts grounded in a couple of studies. So, my plan for the next few minutes will be to touch upon some of the recent research related to SNAP, and I will be underscoring some relevant general aspects related to the Farm Bill. For reasons of time, I will just concentrate on two recent influential studies. Both of these studies have the characteristics of using very high-quality data, and by that I mean primarily administrative data and also a credible research design that gives us overall more confidence in the results.
The first study is by Professors Martha Bailey, Hillary Hoines, Maya Rosin-Slater, and Reid Walker. The two relevant general aspects of this paper that I want to mention here are that it underscores two points. One of them is that SNAP is a fundamentally good investment by the government, particularly when that investment is made for children. The second general point is that the benefits are reaped over time. It’s not an immediate bang for the buck that we see, but rather when the benefits really start showing up and largely outweigh the cost is in the medium to long-term. Which has a very important implication in that policy makers need to maintain a long-term investment perspective in the SNAP program. To focus ideas on this first study, it finds that young children between the ages of 0 to 5 who receive SNAP have significantly better outcomes as adults. This is the long-term perspective, right? The fact that these children are receiving the benefits when they are very young from in utero to five years old. But then the researchers can link the information of these people many years after about 35, 40 years after to see their outcomes as adults. Among other things that they document is that children in this age range who receive SNAP – they attain higher levels of education, they have higher economic self-sufficiency and that includes claiming fewer public benefits. They also have a higher life expectancy, and they have a smaller likelihood of being incarcerated. They are also more likely to live in better neighborhoods. There are a range of positive effects that speak to the long-term high returns of SNAP as an investment. In fact, the authors go ahead, and they calculate the ratio of the benefit of SNAP to the net cost to the government. They find that this ratio is 62, implying that each net dollar invested in SNAP on young children yields about $62 over the long term. A pretty good investment. It is therefore highly cost effective. These calculations by the way, only include benefits from increases in labor income from the exposure to SNAP when they are children, life expectancy increases and lower incarceration rates. The externalities of higher taxes because of the higher earnings and so on are, are not part of this calculation. And yet it has an outstanding return on the investment.
Let me just turn briefly to the second study. This study is by professors Jason Cook and Chloe East. There are again two relevant aspects that I would like to highlight from this paper that uses, again, administrative data from one state that is linked to unemployment insurance benefits databases that have the earnings of these individuals. The two general aspects are as follows. The first one is that SNAP case workers are a fundamental resource for take-up of benefits by poor families. What does that mean? It means that the impact that case workers have underscores the barriers to access embedded in the current application process of the program.
The second point is that in general, SNAP does not create strong disincentives to work. Moreover, in the medium term, these authors document that SNAP appears to help adults find better jobs, better quality jobs. Let me tell you a little bit about the findings. The first one is about the case workers. They analyze the impact of different case workers in this state of study on the program receipt of first-time applicants to the SNAP program. They find that those individuals that are assigned to a more helpful case worker increase their likelihood of them receiving a SNAP by 3%. This is a non-negligible impact on the successful takeoff of the program from individuals that initially they already had the intention to apply for the program. Also, as I was saying, this study delivers credible estimates on the impact of SNAP on labor supply. And there are again two main results about this, the effects on labor supply. The first one is that if we look at the whole pool of applicants of SNAP, there is no adverse effect of SNAP benefits on their labor supply. Why is that? Well, it might not be surprising because by and large, most of the applicants, 79% of them, did not work in the year prior to receiving SNAP. This is a consequence of the type of population that are applicants to the program. The vast majority are individuals that for one reason or another are not attached to the labor market. So not surprisingly receiving a SNAP does not create a disincentive to work for this individual. Now you might be thinking, what about that 21% of individuals that were working prior to receiving a SNAP? The findings of this paper are interesting. They find on the one hand that these individuals indeed show a decrease in labor supply when receiving the SNAP. However, this decrease in labor supply only lasts for one quarter after the receipt of SNAP, after which the authors document their labor earnings rebound and turn positive. Higher than before receiving a SNAP.
So, what can explain this pattern? The authors go into an endeavor of trying to document potential reasons for this finding. They do document evidence suggesting that the job quality of these recipients increases after the first quarter. So, what does this mean? Well, what it means is that according to this evidence, SNAP might be permitting workers to be more patient and conduct a better search for jobs that results in better quality jobs as judged by higher earnings and employment in industries that pay more than other industries. This is a very interesting finding that puts a twist a little bit on the question of whether SNAP has effects on labor supply.
In summary, just to wrap up here, these studies that I mentioned underscore the following points in my mind. The first one is that by and large, SNAP is a public investment that generates large returns, particularly in the medium and long term. Point number two that the disincentives to work generated by the program are in general at most very small and likely non-existent. Third, policymakers should strive for SNAP to reach as many eligible households as possible given the high returns that the program has. What that implies is also perhaps taking a closer look at the application process and trying to facilitate that eligible households do indeed are successful in collecting these benefits that have these high positive returns. And lastly, and it might be a point that is often overlooked, is that good policy making should keep a long-term investment perspective when considering funding programs such as SNAP in this case. I will stop here, and I look forward to the subsequent discussion. Thank you.
Carolyn Barnes: I think Jeff has introduced us and talked about COVID being a natural experiment to address some of the issues that Alfonso raises about implementation and the importance of having a helpful worker and given the long run positive effects. Given the long run positive effects of SNAP on kids and ultimately adults, we should think about ways of simplifying the application and recertification process. In other words, we should reduce the administrative burden in accessing nutrition assistance programs. I am a researcher who studies administrative burden across three programs: WIC, SNAP, and Medicaid.
In the last couple of years have really focused on what’s happened in the nutrition assistance space during the pandemic. The pandemic offered an opportunity to see what happens when we essentially eliminate the barriers to accessing these programs and we make programs more generous, and we make programs more flexible. All of the things that we have spent a lot of time documenting as barriers to accessing nutrition assistance programs. I’m doing some work in partnership with Jamila Michener at Cornell. We did a large-scale qualitative study that includes North Carolina and a couple of other states on how workers responded to COVID policy waivers, which essentially reduced administrative burden and SNAP and other programs and how, and whether beneficiaries or applicants benefited from this reduction in administrative burden. The answer to those questions is super complex in part because I think the missing sort of piece to the puzzle is understanding administrative capacity and what’s necessary for effective implementation on the ground. One of the things that doesn’t get talked about much is the increased demand for benefits initially, especially initially at the beginning of the pandemic and bureaucratic and administrative constraints. What we don’t know from a lot of the great sort of quantitative studies that have been done or how many folks have been excluded who would otherwise be eligible for SNAP during sort of the initial six months of the pandemic, how many folks who tried to reach a helpful caseworker couldn’t get ahold of them? How many folks tried to recertify or tried to engage workers around the recertification process because during the pandemic recertification periods were extended. How many folks got ahold of a worker? How many folks experienced effective policy implementation?
And then do beneficiaries know that there have been these major changes in the programs they’re using and are they taking advantage of those changes? We worked to track those experiences throughout the pandemic. The answer is folks didn’t really know, and beneficiaries especially didn’t know all that was available and all that was happening at the federal level that was impacting their access to these programs. A lot of folks were not aware of their extended recertification deadline, and we were informing people of that during the study. A lot of folks couldn’t get a caseworker, they couldn’t get ahold of a caseworker because of increased demand and case workers just being strapped for time. There are folks that were excluded from the program who probably would’ve been eligible had they been able to engage in the process. We also learned that folks were not aware of the different, the different ways that redemption challenges are using benefits in stores or online, how that had shifted to reduce burden. We did some comparisons with WIC. A lot of folks didn’t know that there were these new food flexibilities for WIC that reduced the redemption costs of using benefits in stores. A lot of participants, SNAP participants, weren’t aware of the online shopping option, which would’ve given them a ton of flexibility in how they use benefits, especially during the initial few months of the pandemic when there were obviously health concerns.
I guess the bottom line, or the takeaway is that there were a lot of amazing sea-changing watershed moments in federal policy that once trickled down through state and local implementation didn’t necessarily have the bite or the impact for those who really struggled to access programs. We know that for those who were able to receive SNAP and who were able to engage, nutrition assistance programs and Medicaid and the like, they benefited significantly, SNAP was an essential buffer to economic hardship. We know that it was crucial for folks that were weathering potential food insecurity, but for the folks that couldn’t get access or for the more complicated, the complicated question of whether these burden reducing strategies really the impact had they could have had, that’s sort of something we need to think through.
How do we make implementation, how do we prioritize implementation and bureaucratic capacity in the same way that we prioritize these major policy changes Because bureaucrats, even if they want to be helpful, are still adapting to unprecedented demand and unprecedented policy change. That means that there are going to be some families that are lost in the shuffle.
Norbert Wilson: Thank you both for those comments. Carolyn, one of the things that really struck me in hearing about some of the work that you were doing on administrative burden is understanding that everyone didn’t have the same experience when trying to engage their case worker. One of the things that was very surprising for me, in looking at the data out of USDA about food insecurity, was the food insecurity rate stayed flat during the early part of the pandemic. A lot of people were anticipating that there was going to be this major spike in food insecurity at the national level, and we saw it held constant. I’m wondering, and there was a second part to that story, is that if you looked at it by race, you saw that African American households and Hispanic households, so there’s pretty significant jump up in food insecurity in the early part of the pandemic. They saw a decline, but not even to the pre-pandemic era, but they did see a decline. I’m wondering if some of the work that you’ve done helps us understand some of that, because I will say a lot of folks were mystified by the flatness of the rate, but then also the diversity that happened.
Carolyn Barnes: So, you’re saying the food insecurity rate nationally was flat, but for African Americans it dropped. Norbert Wilson: It increased it. Carolyn Barnes: It increased.
Norbert Wilson: It increased.
Carolyn Barnes: So, in our sample in North Carolina, we over sample African Americans. So, 67% of our sample are African-American folks across a range of counties. I do think it’s an administrative exclusion story, like what happens when you try, even if you are eligible, and you just can’t engage the bureaucracy in a way that leads to benefits. I do think that that is, that could be a plausible alternative explanation for why we see that. Yes, I always say, I’ve always been thinking through cost sharing agreements. I think you’ve heard me say this over and repeatedly Norbert, but it’s like the cost sharing agreements for administering these programs. We really should think about that. You know, if states are on the hook for half of the administrative budget for these programs for SNAP, then we need to think through what that means when you’re in a lower resource state or region where there’s an underinvestment in administration. It doesn’t matter if you waive interview requirements or if you do it on self-income or self-attestation for income. I’m not having to fill out all these forms and document all these different things. It doesn’t matter if you cannot get ahold of the person who would process your application, or it doesn’t matter if you don’t get a response from the agency once you’ve hit submit, or once you’ve dropped off your application, it just doesn’t matter right? I’m sort of thinking through, critically, how do we support states that are where there’s clearly variation in their administrative capacity. We know what this variation looks like in terms of the generosity of benefits, especially in the cash assistance space and certainly in Medicaid. We know that southeastern states and southern states in general and ideologically conservative states tend to be the least generous, most punitive, and have programs that are the most difficult to access on the rules and benefits side. But what about the administrative capacity side, right? How big are their offices? How many workers do they have? What’s the investment in professional development and training? What’s the investment in software? I talk to caseworkers all the time and they mentioned the challenges of keying in an application. What does it take to successfully process an application or successfully process a recertification and thinking through ways to support workers and support bureaucracies that are trying to process or trying to accommodate, I should say, this new demand, this new level of demand.
So, to answer your question, I do think that this is an implementation story that needs to be told.
Norbert Wilson: Yes, thanks Carolyn. I really do appreciate it. It was clear from the work that Alfonso and I did that just if you could just help folks with eligibility, one that the eligibility and then where that rolls into participation can be an important aspect of what happens to meeting resource gaps. But Alfonso, one of the things that I know we’ve been dealing with, we as in a society, have been dealing with is the debt limit, debt ceiling debates, and what came out was an effort to raise the age of people who were going to be considered ABAWDs, Able Bodied Working Adults Without Children or Without Dependents. It moved from 50 to 54. I’m just wondering, given the work that you were talking about, this idea of SNAP, trying to make sure SNAP allowed for or doesn’t discourage unemployment. I know that a lot of the work that you were reading was saying that no SNAP doesn’t harm employment. I’m just wondering if you have some insights about what that means in terms of the raising of that age limit.
Alfonso Flores-Lagunes: Yes, absolutely. I think that in the larger scheme of things, given that this is a very specific population that is affected by the race in this age from 49 to 54. It’s again, looking at the whole average is tiny the effect that this is going to have in terms of increasing the labor supply of SNAP participants. Of course, and I remark that this is in general because still there are 700,000 people that fall into this category, which is about 2% of people receiving SNAP. But they are going to be adversely affected by not receiving or having the work requirements. But in general, economically is not a significant increase in labor force participation or availability of workers to make things better in the labor market. I believe that by and large this is something more political than meaningfully economically.
Norbert Wilson: I will say, having done some interviews with individuals, especially older adults, and not necessarily in that narrow range, but as folks age, employment opportunities, skills, the ability to find new opportunities, it becomes challenging and realizing that these are also individuals who may be taking on other kinds of family responsibilities. It raises several questions for what will happen to some of those folks. But I will also add that debt ceiling negotiation also changed the dynamic in terms of veterans, children who, adults who came out of the foster care up to the age of 25 and homeless individuals or people who are unhoused, where those by restrictions were removed is an interesting result. That looks like when you looked at the CBO scoring, it seems like there might be more people who participate in the SNAP program given those exemptions. It’s going to be an interesting outcome to see what happens because of these changes.
Jeff Harris: Thank you all so much. We are already starting to get a handful of wonderful questions coming in. We are by no means running close and need to do rapid fire, but we will try and get through as many of these as we can in the time allotted here. So, the first question is unclear who has the answer, but it’s a question about emergency SNAP and any increased demand that may have created on supermarkets or other food sources that folks are going to. So unclear if any of you have an answer for this or if someone would like to jump in with a response.
Norbert Wilson: I’ll just say if I understand the question correctly, the idea of the emergency SNAP benefits that came through the pandemic did allow for people, who would’ve had difficulty accessing or purchasing food, greater purchasing power to go to the grocery store to purchase food. Now what the sort of broader economic effect of that it is not a hundred percent clear to me in terms of inflationary effects, but I mean it did grant some benefits to local economies and SNAP is shown to have economic multiplier effects that is dollars that are spent on SNAP do benefit some local economies. So, it might have been helpful in that respect, not just for the recipients obviously, but for those communities where individuals reside to get that extra benefit. I hope that’s answering the person’s question.
Alfonso Flores-Lagunes: Just to quickly weigh in. If the question is getting at any inflationary pressures, I think that we also need to take into consideration the extraordinary circumstances in terms of the world economy with the conflict in Ukraine and so on that limited the availability of grains and other products throughout the world, not only in the United States. In general, I wouldn’t be overly concerned about inflationary pressures that having these additional SNAP resources for nourishing is going to create in the larger economy through inflation.
Jeff Harris: Our next question here is about that wonderful acronym ABAWD, Norbert, I’m hoping you can just define folks very briefly as we get into this question. But, can anyone speak about the possible administrative burden from ABAWD exemptions on SNAP offices and on SNAP beneficiaries?
Carolyn Barnes: I guess the most, I wouldn’t say obvious, that sounds like not the best word to use, but it expands burden to a population that did not experience burden before. There’s a whole new set of learning costs. Learning what’s required of me now that I’m no longer eligible in the way that I was prior to this change. What’s required of me now and then compliance costs, how do I have to document my work efforts? Then the psychological cost of having to meet with the SNAP worker potentially in whatever stigma or stress or complexity that might present itself that I otherwise would’ve foregone in the previous sort of iteration of the federal policy. There’s a potential there that in some states a person who didn’t experience these burdens is now going to have to experience these burdens. From the case worker perspective, it’s again, learning new policy and adapting to new policy. I don’t know what that’s going to do for demand. This might have a chilling effect for older adults, who are not yet retired in whether they want to even pursue SNAP. I don’t know what this is going to do for demand per se from that slice of the population, but I do think there’s going to be some adaptation for workers in learning new rules and that is a stressful process for workers. We’ve seen that in the work that we’ve done on workers adapting to COVID policy waivers, that’s stressful. I imagine that it will be stressful for workers. I will say that in my experience, and back to Alfonso’s earlier comments about the long run effects of SNAP, the model SNAP participant happens to be families with small children or typically families, with kids under 18. But the model SNAP participant is a household where there are children present. So, I, as a thought exercise, I think what will likely happen is most case workers won’t be impacted by these changes. Those who do handle ABAWD cases will have to do some new learning on the ground, especially if they’re not in a state that hasn’t already used its waiver to shift work requirements for that population and that those who didn’t experience burdens before now have to experience burdens.
Norbert Wilson: There’s also the case, if I’m not mistaken, that the age, the raising of the age is going to be done in pieces. I think it’s going to go from zero to, from 50 to 52, then 52 to 54. So that sort of transition period also adds complexity to it. While it allows people to step into it, it also means people need to be aware of what’s happening and take in that information and abide accordingly. I’m not so much worried about the case workers, but I’m thinking about regular citizens who are thinking, am I still eligible? I just turned 52, what happened? I think it causes some concerns and there’s going to be a need for communicating that and helping people navigate those rules.
Jeff Harris: Okay our next question here offers up the theory of the case that if we’re in a situation where spending does need to be reduced by some amount on SNAP, what would you think would be ways to look at offsetting potential impact? I know this question asks about those who need, let me avoid the notion of the judgment call, but also Carolyn, you started to talk about this, about the model SNAP recipient, and can you just talk a little bit about again, the different makeups of sort of who is in that profile of SNAP recipients and how if anyone wants to chime in then how potential changes or reductions in SNAP spending in the Farm Bill might impact different populations?
Carolyn Barnes: This is such a tricky question because to make these kinds of tradeoffs or engage this sort of thought experiment, I think you’d need to figure out what’s your ideal for the program. So relative to other programs, SNAP coverage rate is high. I think it’s about 85% of folks who are eligible receive it. There’s variation, I could be wrong on that number. Norbert and Alfonso, correct me if I’m wrong, but relative to say the WIC program which is 54% or hovering around 50%, SNAP has taken up quite well. The question is with SNAP, the issue of churn. So, who ends up falling off and having to get back on and the burdensome experience of having to do all of that stuff. I think to answer that question, we would need to think about what’s the ideal world for SNAP? Like what’s the ideal participation rate for SNAP? Who benefits most from SNAP? The tail end of the question is who really needs SNAP? I think policymakers thinking through cost benefit analysis and tradeoffs, are they going to look for the return? Who really benefits most from SNAP, and how do we design a program that works for families that benefit the most from SNAP? That would be the exercise I’d engage in. But I think anyone who’s eligible should be getting the program. I don’t want to make the tough call to begin with, I guess is my intent or my heart is that I don’t want to make that call to begin with because I think, you know, we shouldn’t have food insecurity rates or poverty rates. We’re at an all-time low in terms of poverty, but in general, relative to other developed countries, our safety net isn’t where it should be. I think we could be far more generous, but that’s where I would start. I don’t know of an option that would cause the least impacts on those who really need SNAP, in part because we don’t know what’s the ideal SNAP world. Do we want a hundred percent coverage rate? What are we okay with in terms of what would reflect an effective program?
Jeff Harris: Has there been any work looking at the racial makeup of SNAP participants relative to agency, staff, and how that might impact participation rates?
Norbert Wilson: I can say I don’t know if there’s work, and I’ll lean to my colleagues here about the concordance. So, I assume the question is asking if I’m African American, does it matter if my case worker’s African American and does it matter or if there’s not concordance? I know in medical literature, there’s a lot of discussion about this and that literature’s diverse in terms of what the findings are. But I would say, I don’t know if anything specific, but I’ll leave it to my colleagues here to speak if they know about their studies.
Carolyn Barnes: So, there isn’t anything on SNAP. I don’t know if there’s anything on, so the idea of representative bureaucracy, like do you have folks in the bureaucracy that look like you. There’s been a lot of work on representative bureaucracy across the range of agencies. I’m not sure if there’s anything new about SNAP. I will say that there is some rich, amazing qualitative work on case workers during welfare reform and the role that racial identity played or being a race mate with your client played in how case workers made decisions and how clients experienced programs. It turns out policy matters most. So, policy pressures shaped workers’ behaviors. There wasn’t any significant difference between having a Hispanic worker or a Black worker or an Asian worker or any sort of demographic identity of the worker. It didn’t have the sort of effects that we’d assume it would have in the quality of that experience. It was really the extent to which the worker felt pressured by policy and workers themselves developed their own unique identities in response to policies and organizational pressures. It’s not necessarily true that if I had a black case worker, I would be treated better than if I had a white case worker. I’m doing some work now about what race means in the quality of bureaucratic encounters in the role south. That could be context dependent. I know her work was in Massachusetts; my work is in North Carolina and other states. It could be that for that case, policy matters more, but in other contexts, race, the racial identity of the worker might matter more. That’s just a comment there. Nothing on SNAP specifically that I know of, but other work shows that it’s a little more complicated than what we would anticipate.
Alfonso Flores-Lagunes: Just quickly, I agree with my panelists and co-panelists, there is evidence from other countries about other safety type of safety net programs that seem to show that there is some impact. But what I submit to you is that if the race or ethnicity or ability of a case worker matters for takeoff, then I wouldn’t say that it is a problem of a mismatch of race and ethnicity or groups. It’s more a problem of the application process and the intricacies of the rules rather than, you know, whether you’re lucky in finding a case worker of your same social demographic group or race and ethnicities. I would be in favor of just focusing on simplifying some of these rules that, you know, the focus on work requirements really describes from the aspect of hunger, which is the main purpose of this program.
Jeff Harris: Next question. Does PEN have any recommendations, or I’ll add any references to sources of information on how to support nonprofit workers, who process SNAP applications and help people enroll in SNAP? Questions specifically from a staff person whose member has heard in their own home district that nonprofit workers have insufficient capacity to enroll everyone in need of SNAP?
Carolyn Barnes: I don’t want to add a new task, but I think outreach is critical and reducing some of those costs in advance of submitting the application would both increase the likelihood that someone has a successful claim for SNAP and would also reduce the burden of the worker that’s trying to help someone enroll. What I mean is getting outside of the organization and doing more grassroots things that are grassroots strategies, taking on grassroot strategies to connect with SNAP participants or those who might be eligible, I’ve always been a big proponent of targeting childcare centers and churches, especially in the south, where a lot of low-income families would have those interactions, and providing an advance information about what’s needed. So, what kinds of documents might I need, especially as the public health emergency order has now been lifted, like what kinds of documents might I need going into the application in the work that I’ve done. A lot of people ask them like how did they learn about the program and how did they apply? They report relying on their social networks, not a formal case worker or even a formal nonprofit. Is there a way to kind of shift gears and engage in sort of a grassroots communication strategy about what’s necessary to have a successful SNAP application? I think that could be a way to support workers.
Norbert Wilson: I’ve been in conversation with a person who’s involved in a local nonprofit and this person has raised the challenge of navigating the rules and being able to help applicants through the process. Because of the differences by state, there’s some variation that can occur that it’s critical for nonprofits who are trying to help individuals to have a detailed understanding of what the rules are and to help people navigate that. It becomes even more difficult because they’re not able to go in and if you put the information in, there are some challenges electronically even just to apply. I think there are some spaces for groups to help understand that process and to help people navigate that process.
Carolyn Barnes: One more thing. I know that Don Moynihan and Pam Heard have been doing some work with Code for America, which helps folks in California, I think, and some other states apply for SNAP, but I think they have some either papers out or papers that are coming that speak to that. So, what can third parties do to boost SNAP participation? That might be something to think through how does civic technology affect this as a third party and I think they address some of those concerns about like different systems and logistically helping people.
Jeff Harris: We still have a handful of questions here and nine minutes to go. So I’m going to ask our panelists if we shift into a rapid fire format here if that’s all right. I know we’ve talked a little bit about the debt ceiling deals impact already. Are there any final thoughts on just ways that might impact the upcoming Farm Bill, either in total dollar amount or in some of the changes that are going to be implemented as a result?
Norbert Wilson: I think we knew the answer to that. Well because of those ABAWD rules and the exemptions, I would hope that that’s been worked out so that we don’t have to see that debate occur again in the Farm Bill. Hopefully because those rules that came out of debt ceiling go into 2030, if I remember correctly, and therefore it should cover the Farm Bill. Hopefully they can avoid that fight. I think we’ll only see once the sort of first rounds of Farm Bill legislation come through for that conversation to be made real.
Jeff Harris: All right. Moving on. Increasing working hours and getting promotion may negatively impact SNAP beneficiaries as we know more commonly the SNAP benefits cliff. Has anyone done research on the SNAP benefits cliff, and could you provide any brief insights into policy solutions to address that?
Norbert Wilson: I know that Goodwill Industries is working on this, and they’re working in collaboration with the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, and I think Atlanta. There’s a researcher out of, I think, the Federal Reserve Bank in Atlanta that has some work in this space. It is an interesting thing and I know the Goodwill industry folks; they are looking at trying to come up with a code or a reference book to help employers help their employees through these issues of the benefits cliff.
Carolyn Barnes: Yes, I was going to say yes to the Atlanta Fed having incredible resources that document benefit cliffs across states and what it would take to reduce benefit cliffs. The number one thing that I hear from SNAP participants at cycle on and off the program is the income guidelines are too low. They don’t consider my expenses. There’s a lot of complaints, not necessarily about administrative burden, but literally the guidelines of the program and like the contours of eligibility, it’s not generous enough, and it’s not targeting a wide enough pool of families and that’s, you know, that’s something that must shift legislatively. Like we would have to change legislation to make it so that more low-income working families were benefiting from the program. That’s a hard thing to do.
Jeff Harris: Next question, but has there been any progress or recent changes in removing the ban for those who have felonies from the ability to receive SNAP benefits?
Norbert Wilson: Well, I know in the 2018 Farm Bill they kept out. There was some conversation around expanding that. It’s on a state-by-state basis. South Carolina, I think, is the only state that has a really very strict ban. North Carolina has a ban. I don’t know if it’s going to come up in this Farm Bill. I hope not. I would love to see; I should be careful. I think it’s critical for us to have a thoughtful approach to what we’re doing with those kinds of restrictions. I was interviewing someone who had a felony drug conviction in another state, moved to North Carolina and this is an individual who was struggling because they were not able to access SNAP from something that happened in their youth, and yet it still was a burden for them. I think there’s some real costs. There was a study out of Florida that looked at how costly it is these policies, not only for the individual but also for the state. I would say these kinds of restrictions are really… can be problematic for folks.
Jeff Harris: Okay. I think we are getting close to time here. We’ll try and squeeze in one or two more. Could you all speak each of you about any parts of the application process or anything else within individual’s interaction with the SNAP benefit that would be either most complicated or burdensome that might be able to benefit from policy changes. So again, is there anything in the application process or otherwise where policy changes might be able to help address the complications or burden? Carolyn, I see you just came back, but just to reiterate the last question we’re going through here. Could you speak about which parts of the application process are most complicated or burdensome?
Carolyn Barnes: For both workers and participants, it’s documenting employment. Documenting employment workers have a hard time. It is what’s most burdensome for participants and actually ends up being most burdensome for workers, who are implementing the program. And that’s gathering and confirming information. Documenting employment and earnings tends to be the trickiest thing, especially if folks have intermittent employment or if folks have non-standard work hours or precarious work hours, it becomes tricky for applicants to correctly document that and make sure that they’re getting the level of benefits that they need. It’s hard for workers to track that information down. The second thing would be like household composition, which can be tricky for low-income families that might be doubling up or temporarily staying with folks as they deal with their own housing insecurity issues. So, the gathering information part, documenting pay, and documenting household composition tends to be the most difficult.
Jeff Harris: And in closing here, just to give Norbert, Alfonso both you a chance, since administrative burden really is Carolyn’s area of expertise, is there anything else within this discussion that you’d like to leave staff with a notion of some areas of possible policy change or improvement that would be worth exploring in the upcoming Farm Bill reauthorization?
Alfonso Flores-Lagunes: Well one aspect that comes to mind is the Thrifty Food plan, which is sort of the basis for the level of generosity of the benefits. And particularly right now with inflation, there is only one update a year of these Thrifty Food Plan and that will create, I mean this just discreteness will create some hardship for individuals as they try to make those benefits last longer throughout the cycle.
Norbert Wilson: I’ll add to that Thrifty Food Plan. There was a readjustment in 2021, that allowed for a higher benefit level. It was a critical one and I think it was in the 2018 Farm Bill where the idea was that it was going to happen regularly beforehand. It wasn’t happening that regularly. So, adjustment of that Thrifty Food Plan which sets the maximum benefit level, that then influences the benefit levels that everyone receives is a critical factor in helping make sure the farm, excuse me, helping make sure that the SNAP program really meets the food needs of families. I would say the other part is, is anything that we can do that allows people to understand their ability to access the program and their ability to get the benefits. I want to pick up on what Carolyn was talking about: who’s in the household, and it becomes a little bit trickier when you talk about older adults, when you have individuals who may be coming in and out of the household, maybe as children, maybe it’s your grandchildren and being able to document that well and knowing that households can change over the course of a month, if not over a year. So being able to really capture that could be important for some families.