If Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm signs a state bill as expected, Food Stamp Program participants will begin receiving their benefits in two monthly installments.
This policy reform is the latest in a series of steps that make food stamp participation more similar to and consistent with working. The Food Stamp Program was once closely tied to cash assistance, but it has been improved in recent years to make it more accessible also to low-income working families who are not quite poor enough for cash welfare payments. The program was once delivered in special coupons or "stamps", which carried a high-level of stigma, but the benefits are now distributed through electronic updates to debit cards like any other bank card in the grocery score checkout aisle. Finally, the program has always credited the benefits only once monthly like a welfare or social security payment, but the Michigan proposal for twice monthly credits would be more similar to the schedule for direct deposit of a working person's wage or salary.
We pointed out last November that the Michigan proposal may be preempted by the federal government, because the farm bill that passed the Senate would forbid states from pursuing this type of policy innovation. Some people suspect that USDA's Food and Nutrition Service was behind the farm bill language, but a colleague at FNS tells me he doesn't believe that is correct.
The Michigan proposal would apply only to households who receive more than $100 in food stamp benefits monthly. Households that receive smaller benefit amounts would still receive their benefits just once per month.
According to the Associated Press, the Michigan Department of Human Services neither opposed nor endorsed the proposal, but it did request a survey to collect input from food stamp participants themselves. Thirty-five percent of participants thought twice monthly delivery was a good idea, and 59% thought it was not. The Michigan grocery lobby, which supports the twice monthly delivery in part because it could reduce checkout-line inconveniences, pointed out that the survey might have been more informative if it were tabulated separately for participants with more or less than $100 in benefits per month. It seems likely that the people with larger benefits, who would be the only ones affected by the proposed change, would be the same ones most likely to support the change.
Even though the advance survey doesn't settle the question, asking the participants themselves is the right attitude. Even beyond this advance survey, the twice-monthly policy should be assessed to see if it causes participants any shopping inconvenience and to see if it delivers the expected benefits. These benefits could include lower risk of food insecurity at the end of the month and perhaps higher purchases of perishables such as milk and fresh fruits and vegetables.
A final point I always emphasize on this issue: the twice-monthly benefit delivery is not more paternalistic than the current policy. Twice-monthly benefit delivery does not constrain shopping schedules any more than once-monthly delivery does. If you receive your benefits once monthly, but you prefer to do major grocery shopping more than once monthly (as most non-participant families do), you could undertake the mild inconvenience of saving half your benefits for use later in the food stamp month. Conversely, if you receive your benefits twice monthly, but you prefer to do major grocery shopping only once monthly (as some participant families currently do), you could undertake the mild inconvenience of waiting to conduct the big shopping trip until the second payment is credited. You'd only have to wait one time ever. After that, you could shop once monthly as you always did.