House Ag Committee Farm Bill Hearing- SNAP in Focus

Background

The House Ag Committee of the 115th Congress has conducted full Committee and Subcommittee Farm Bill hearings over the past few months on a variety of issues, including: the farm economy;  conservation; rural development and energy programs; specialty crops; livestock and dairy issues; farm policy and farm credit, and cotton.  In addition, the Committee also heard perspective on the farm economy and farm policy last month from Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.

Last week, the House Ag Committee continued its policy work by holding two hearings: one, which covered SNAP (food stamps) technology and modernization issues, and another that underscored the importance of international food aid.  Today’s update focuses on the developments related to the SNAP program.

SNAP Hearing

On Thursday, the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Nutrition held a hearing to evaluate technology and modernization in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program.

Recall that in December, Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R., Tex.) released a report on SNAP (“Past, Present, and Future of SNAP“) which summarized the committee’s two-year review of the program.  At last week’s hearing, Chairman Conaway noted that, “Throughout the committee’s two-year review of SNAP, I’ve consistently said that we need to focus on getting the policy right.  As we craft the next farm bill, enhancements in technology and modernization of SNAP will be important to improving the efficiency and efficacy of the program to best serve our nation’s most vulnerable citizens.”

By dollars, the Farm Bill is mostly a Food Program Bill. (Graph from USDA-ERS).

Subcommittee Chairman Glenn ‘GT’ Thompson (R., Pa.) indicated that, “In addition to EBT [Electronic Benefits Transfer] and eligibility system modernizations, many states and counties are working on improving the experience of SNAP households through enhancements to their business processes and customer-facing technology. These and other technology initiatives, combined with data-driven business process improvements, can enhance administrative efficiency at the state level while making the process of applying for SNAP benefits more streamlined for households in need.”

Subcommittee Ranking Member Jim McGovern (D., Mass.) pointed out that:

The President’s budget, in case you forgot, cuts SNAP – our nation’s first line of defense against hunger – by $193 billion dollars. That’s a 25 percent cut.

Rep. McGovern added that, “President Trump’s own Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, told this Committee last month that SNAP is ‘a very important, effective program.’ He told us there was no need to dramatically reform the program because ‘you don’t try to fix things that aren’t broken.’

“‘I agree with Secretary Perdue on those points, and encourage President Trump and his OMB director Mick Mulvaney, our former colleague, to listen to the experts when it comes to SNAP and other anti-hunger programs.

“‘In all of the hearings, we haven’t heard from one witness who suggested cutting SNAP. President Trump’s budget is reckless, and in my opinion, if it ever got enacted, is heartless, and we should do everything in our power to stop these dangerous proposals from advancing in this Congress.”

Jason Boswell, Vice President-Program Management at the Conduent State & Local Solutions, Inc., explained to the Ag Subcommittee in his opening remarks at last week’s hearing that, “A relatively new offering for SNAP benefit recipients is the availability of a mobile app to view program balances, transactions, and enable cardholder alerts. Our mobile app is available for both Android and iOS users and is free to download in the respective app stores.”

Mr. Boswell added that, “Providing a mobile app also helps to empower recipients to monitor their account for potential fraudulent use by others that may have access to their SNAP benefit card. Additionally the mobile app can be a tool to convey important program information quickly to recipients or could be used to influence spending behavior by offering incentive (e.g. coupons) for healthy food purchases.”

Lauren Aaronson, the Assistant Deputy Commissioner – Office of Business Process Innovation, at the Human Resources Administration (HRA) in New York, pointed out that, “In an effort to decrease the digital divide, HRA was awarded a US Department of Agriculture grant to launch a self-service mobile app to give clients the ability to use their mobile device to better manage their cases.”  Ms. Aaronson explained that, “Though the app allows clients to utilize their mobile device to get access to much of the same information that is available on the web portal, it also allows clients to use the camera to capture and submit images of SNAP and Cash Assistance eligibility documents to the Agency. In addition, it allows us to use push notifications to remind clients about important case milestones such as recertification, as well as access integrated functions such as mapping and calendaring.”

Graph from, “Ag and Food Statistics- Charting the Essentials, 2017.” (USDA-ERS, April 2017).

During the discussion portion of Thursday’s hearing, Rep. Ted Yoho (R., Fla.) queried, “The question is, and this is for the group, this question is for the group, what role do you think the mobile-based technology will play in both reducing administrative costs and improving provisions for the SNAP and preventing fraudulent use? Do you want to take that first Mr. Boswell?”

Mr. Boswell replied, “From a program delivery perspective, obviously the first step in which we are trying to accomplish is balance information, transactional data, helping the individual, the consumer learn to be responsible for that account. From a delivery perspective ongoing, we see significant opportunity to drive the message of healthy eating, nutritional purchases through items such as offering coupons or incentives for making healthy purchases in retail marketplaces, etc.

Mr. Boswell expounded, noting that, “From a fraud perspective, I think if you kind of look long-term, much of the suspected fraud if you will in the EBT space, is what we would consider the hand-to-hand fraud, selling your card, handing your card to someone else in return for some kind of value.

If we were able to, from a long-view perspective, move from a card-based technology to a more of a mobile payment perspective, where you are utilizing mobile wallets, things such as Apple Pay, Google Pay, and instead of having to hand a card and use your pin; you have to be present with your mobile device and a biometric fingerprint if you will to authorize that transaction, you are in many ways helping to prevent that hand-to-hand activity that could take place.

Rep. Yoho also asked: “One of the other questions I have, are there any apps that allow the SNAP recipient to see what they purchase on a nutritional content, and can they have a running tabulation of that, and is there a way a caseworker can look at that and say, ‘Well you know you’re buying these things and not these things, and we need to move more into this category.’ Because we see the childhood obesity and we see them in the food deserts, and you know, to educate and help us work through that process.”

Mr. Boswell noted that, “Currently a transaction that’s processed for SNAP, the information provided back to the processors such as Conduent and back to the states is not at the product level. The product information is not passed in that transaction.”

Rep. McGovern added that, “All of this is very, very interesting too, but not everybody has access to the technology that we’re talking about here today. So while we are talking about moving forward you know, everybody having a smartphone and all this, not everybody does. The SNAP population is a very diverse population.

And again, it goes back to what I said before about not only moving forward with advancements in technology, but making sure that we don’t have situations where the technology isn’t working, where people are denied their food benefits. IT should not increase hunger, it should help alleviate it, and I think we have to be very, very careful how we move forward here.

Meanwhile, in other SNAP related news, the Associated Press reported last week that, “A crackdown on illegal immigration under President Donald Trump has driven some poor people to take a drastic step: opt out of federal food assistance because they are fearful of deportation, activists and immigrants say.

“People who are not legal residents of the U.S. are not eligible to take part in what is formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

But many poor families include a mix of non-legal residents and legal ones, such as children who have citizenship because they were born in the U.S. In those cases, it is often an adult who is not a legal resident who submits the application.”

The AP article stated that, “Some now feel that is too dangerous under a president who has made immigration enforcement a priority. Throughout the U.S., there are accounts of people resisting efforts of nonprofit organizations to sign them up for food stamps, letting benefits lapse or withdrawing from the program because of the perceived risk.”

Keith Good

Keith Good is the social media manager for the farmdoc project at the University of Illinois. He is well known in agricultural circles for the daily FarmPolicy.com News Summary.