The City of Houston voted today to pay $159,684.96 in grant money to hire people to work at the Houston Food Bank to enroll Houstonians on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP – more commonly referred to as “food stamps”). The Houston Food Bank will try to enroll about 1,400 more people in this federal program.
Many of the council members asked over and over again at the hearing today where the money came from and why they are paying for it out of the General Revenue Fund. The City of Houston was given this grant money for Katrina reimbursements. This money is currently in the Special Funds. No money can be distributed out of Special Funds to a particular group, so the money will be transferred from Special Funds to the General Revenue Fund and then to the Food Bank. It’s kind of like transferring money from your savings account to your checking account so that you can write a check.
Council Members Brown and Pennington voted against this measure. CM Pennington said that basically more research needs to be done on the matter and that there are housing improvement needs as well. Council Member Christie ultimately voted for this but inquired about people buying junk food with the Lone Star Card. This is a question I receive at work all the time, and it can be very confusing. The Lone Star Card (kind of like a debit card) may contain SNAP benefits and/or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) money. While the two programs are both handled by the federal government, they are separate, and it can be difficult to discern which program is being used for purchases at a store. SNAP funds are restricted to certain items. These items are usually pretty healthy with a few exceptions. What is confusing is that TANF funds have less specific restrictions. So if you see someone purchasing junk food at a store with a Lone Star Card, it might not be SNAP money. It could be TANF money. (Side note: if you want anything related to SNAP changed, contact your federal representative. SNAP is administered by the state, but any change must take place at the federal level. The federal government regulates TANF as well).
The Food Research and Action Center released a report saying that only 60% of Houstonians who qualify for food stamp benefits actually receive them. While that may be true, I don’t believe that this number is quite as staggering as one might think. Many people who qualify for SNAP benefits don’t receive them because they choose not to. I’ve had countless people call my office and explain that they lost their job and don’t really want to go on food stamps and ask what other services are available instead. Maybe this doesn’t make up the other 40% of those not on food stamps, but it has to account for a considerable percentage. I really doubt that the majority of the 40% not receiving benefits (who qualify) don’t know that food stamps exist. While some federal programs are obscure, I guarantee that SNAP doesn’t need a promoter. Then when you take into account the people who the Houston Food Bank will never reach, it will be interesting to see how much they can actually increase that percentage.
A misconception about SNAP is that it is there to foot the bill for all of the recipients’ food. Rather the program is in place to supplement the bill. Many people who are already on food stamps go to the Food Bank to get the rest of the food that the SNAP didn’t cover. Therefore it is likely that most people going to the Food bank are already on food stamps.
Just so everyone reading this is clear, I am completely in favor of helping people get food. I’ve helped countless people in the Senate office with food stamps, and I will continue to help those in need. I just believe that the money would have been better spent if they donated it to the Houston Food Bank for food purchases instead. At least that way you know for sure that your tax dollars are actually being used to feed the hungry.
Rather than questioning which account this is coming from, the question the council members should have asked is why we are spending tax dollars to get more people to spend tax dollars? Trickle down government at its finest.