By Jenny McCoy
Andrea Fuller used to hate grocery shopping, and the difficult decisions she’d have to make each time over which items she could afford.
A Denver-based single mother, Fuller works three jobs to support herself and her children, ages 11 and 15, often pulling 17-hour days six—and sometimes seven—days a week. Still, her grueling schedule isn’t enough to cover all of their expenses, which include steep medical costs to treat her son’s chronic illness.
Since 2008, Fuller has relied on the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) to help fill the gap. It has alleviated her dread of visiting a supermarket.
“I can’t even describe how non-stressful it was to go to the grocery store once I received SNAP,” said Fuller. “It was a huge burden lifted.”
The additional $200-$400 a month that Fuller receives from SNAP allows her to buy higher quality grocery items—organic produce, dairy and lean meats—instead of cheaper, more processed foods. She no longer worries if she’ll have enough food, particularly healthy food, to feed her growing children.
Fuller is one of approximately 476,000 Coloradans enrolled in SNAP. The program provides nutrition assistance to people with low incomes, and it’s one of the federal programs targeted for reduction by both President Trump and House Republicans in proposed budget cuts.
Trump’s plan would shrink federal SNAP funding by 25 percent—or $193 billion—over the course of 10 years; the House Republican cuts would eliminate SNAP benefits by $154 billion over the same period, which translates to more than 80,000 households losing assistance by 2023. Both plans would reduce (and, in some cases, eliminate) SNAP benefits for the most vulnerable populations, including households with children and unemployed, elderly or disabled people.
These suggested cuts seemingly ignore both the program’s short- and long-term benefits. SNAP participation is a potent catalyst for better lives; it lifted 4.7 million Americans out of poverty in 2014, according to the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. It also gives a leg up to a significant proportion of people of color—according to 2014 statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Census Bureau, 13.7 percent of all African Americans use the program for nutrition assistance, compared to 3.5 percent of all white Americans.
The program is directly linked with several positive health outcomes, especially for children like Fuller’s who receive SNAP benefits in early childhood. Earlier this year, Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research reported that people who receive SNAP assistance from a young age have a lower risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and hypertension as adults. They’re also more likely to report being in good health. Access to SNAP benefits improves high school graduation rates by 18 percent, and women who had access to SNAP as children are more economically self-sufficient later in life, per the Northwestern report.
Despite these outcomes, SNAP benefits aren’t used as much as they could be, especially in Colorado. A map created by the Colorado Center on Law & Policy (CCLP), a Colorado Trust grantee, shows county-level disparities between the number of SNAP-eligible residents and the number of residents actually enrolled in the program.
Today, only three out of five eligible Coloradans are enrolled, which leaves 350,000 eligible Coloradans unenrolled. This ranks Colorado 45th in the nation in terms of enrollment efficiency, Hunger Free Colorado’s Food Stamp Impact Reports revealed.
Colorado’s gap between eligible, enrolled and eligible, unenrolled residents varies greatly by county. Pueblo County, for example, boasts the highest enrollment rate, with 93.5 percent of SNAP-eligible residents in the program. On the other end of the spectrum is Pitkin County, with only 11.2 percent of eligible residents enrolled.
These vast discrepancies between counties are likely the result of several factors, said Chaer Robert, CCLP’s program manager for family economic security. The effectiveness of community outreach, differing attitudes towards public assistance, and even how far geographically the highest concentration of households in poverty is located from a county’s human services agency (which typically handles SNAP enrollment) can play roles.
“People think of SNAP as people who are chronically poor in Denver,” said Robert. “But in rural areas, people may be more accepting of the fact that they may need assistance to buy food.” This may explain why SNAP enrollment trends higher in Colorado’s rural counties, despite outliers like Pitkin.
In general, communities in Pitkin and other mountain-resort counties have lower rates of SNAP enrollment and higher rates of foreign-born residents compared to state averages, said Joël McClurg, director of public policy at Hunger Free Colorado.
“Stigma and fear may be contributing to the low enrollment rates in immigrant communities,” said McClurg, clarifying that while undocumented immigrants are not eligible for SNAP, documented immigrants who are eligible may still be afraid to apply because of the current political environment. That’s problematic—not only because eligible populations aren’t receiving the help they need, but also because lower enrollment rates can have widespread economic repercussions.
“SNAP enrollment is important for sustaining local economies in rural areas,” said McClurg. Cuts to SNAP funding would create a detrimental ripple effect throughout local communities, he said, harming not just SNAP recipients but also local grocers, farmers, manufacturers, distributors and others in the food supply chain. “It would cause shock waves in rural communities, especially those that are still recovering from recession,” he said.
And for those who argue that SNAP should be cut simply because it’s underused in states like Colorado, McClurg has two points of clarification.
“First and foremost, the unspent money doesn’t go anywhere,” McClurg said, explaining that unused funds are simply reallocated elsewhere in the U.S. federal budget. Second, cutting SNAP funding “inhibits the ability of the program to expand in the future, like during times of economic recession or in the cases of natural disaster,” he said, pointing to Hurricane Harvey evacuees who now have access to a special form of SNAP known as Disaster SNAP (or D-SNAP), which helps eligible households overcome sudden food loss caused by such events.
“Cutting the program weakens its ability to respond to trying times,” said McClurg.
On the whole, SNAP participation is a boon for Colorado’s economy. Every $5 in SNAP benefits generates an estimated $9 in local economic activity, according to federal research. In 2016, SNAP generated approximately $728 million for Colorado’s economy, per a CCLP report on Moody’s Analytics.
Economics aside, for Fuller, the issue at heart is a human one. She has just one question for those who support reducing SNAP benefits: Have you ever wondered how you are going to feed your children?
“If you haven’t, you can’t empathize with those who have,” Fuller said. “Until you’ve been in that place, you cannot fathom or empathize with the despair that we have faced and are striving to overcome.”