Beyer Position Paper on SNAP and Welfare

One of the primary functions of government is to help the most vulnerable in society. I worked hard as Lieutenant Governor during Virginia’s poverty and welfare reform to push back against stringent Republican proposals and to keep the system compassionate and fair. And today, I am again disturbed by the war against the poor in America, and specifically by budget proposals such as Rep. Paul Ryan’s that would enact punitive cuts to SNAP — the former Food Stamps — as well as to health insurance programs and Social Security.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, helps feed 40 million Americans whose incomes are insufficient to lift them out of poverty. Consider these sobering statistics:

  • The average monthly income of a household receiving SNAP benefits is $744;
  • Over 80 percent of the households receiving these benefits include a child, an elderly person, or a person with disabilities;
  • More than 70 percent of the recipients live in a household with a child or children;
  • Just in 2012, SNAP benefits helped push nearly five million people above the poverty line;
  • And contrary to what we hear from the Tea Party, half of all food stamp recipients use the program for less than a year, 72% for less than two years; and,
  • In more than half of the SNAP households that have a working-age, non-disabled adult, someone is employed.


In 1997, my wife Megan and I, together with our children, spent a week living on Food Stamps. We had a “coach,” Dee, who was a Food Stamps recipient. It was an eye-opening and difficult experience. We ate a great deal of carbohydrates: rice and beans, cereal, and bread. We didn’t have any alcohol, of course, nor any desserts. We did not experience hunger so much as we craved protein (and fresh vegetables and fruit). In short, we found our diet very unsatisfying, and we had to be careful about every purchase we made.

In the mid-1990s, I was Virginia’s Lieutenant Governor, fighting for a reasonable compromise with Governor George Allen on how best to amend Virginia’s welfare system. There was a tension between my poverty commission proposals to make it far easier for welfare recipients to lift themselves out of poverty, and the Allen Administration’s harsher ideas about “welfare dependency.”

In the end, I felt that we were largely successful: The law included provisions for transportation and affordable day care for the recipients, as well as job training, so that welfare recipients who were being pushed off the rolls had a decent chance of crafting a better life. We also passed provisions to eliminate a punitive tax called the “100 percent tax:” If a welfare recipient made another $100 a month, the state took that $100 out of her welfare check, thereby destroying her incentive to work! And we abolished the rule that a woman could not receive AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) if there was a man living in the house.

In short, instead of being punitive, or trying to shame the poorest people in our society, we tried to craft policies that might help them.

When I think about SNAP, I think back to that journey in the 1990s. We don’t want to follow Paul Ryan’s course, which would provide less food for America’s hungry children and families, who rely on this program for sustenance. Instead, we need to think about how we Americans, together with our government, can help those 40 million. We can continue to improve SNAP so that they get even better nutrition. And we can work to help them out of poverty through job creation, job training, a much stronger and refundable Earned Income Tax Credit, and an increase in the minimum wage.