Thursday, January 17, 2013

IOM report considers time constraints as part of assessing SNAP benefit adequacy

The Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academies, today released a consensus report on the adequacy of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

The committee that prepared the report was led by Julie Caswell of UMASS Amherst.  Members included Mary Muth, Philip Gleason, Jim Ziliak, Barbara Laraia, Diane Schanzenbach, and others.  The committee had invited me to Washington for a workshop in spring 2012 to give a presentation (.pdf) about the economics of the SNAP benefit formula, the procedure that the federal government uses to assign a benefit amount to each participant household based on its income and other characteristics.

In one notable conclusion of today's report, the committee suggested that the federal government should account for the difficulty low-income families face in finding sufficient time to cook at home.  The implication is that the government could consider increasing SNAP benefits to provide low-income households with sufficient resources to purchase more convenient and easy-to-prepare foods:

Time—USDA-FNS should recognize the cost-time trade-offs involved in procuring and preparing a nutritious diet. The dollar value of the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP), with its strong reliance on preparation of meals from basic ingredients, does not account for time constraints faced by most households at all income levels, particularly those with a single working head of household, which necessitate purchasing value-added or prepared foods with a higher cost. USDA-FNS should examine the impact of accounting for cost-time trade-offs, for example, by:
  • applying a time adjustment multiplier to the cost of the TFP or reviewing options for adjustments to the current cost of the plan, and
  • adjusting the earned income deduction to reflect more accurately time pressures for participants who are working. 
One question is whether encouraging greater food spending on convenient foods would have any health or environmental consequences.  For example, convenience foods tend on average to have more sodium and more packaging than their traditional counterparts.

Clearly, an increased benefit to allow for convenience foods would be a special boon for highly time-constrained households -- think for example of the dreadfully tight time budget for a low-income working single parent.  Yet, many other low-income SNAP participants are retired, or live in households that include a non-working adult.

Some low-income households are able to -- and even want to -- cook at home.  For these households, it might be counter-productive to increase the maximum benefit to a level based on the price of expensive convenience foods, while simultaneously forbidding the households to economize on food and use the savings for non-food needs such as housing and transportation.

While you're thinking this over, I thought it would be helpful to conclude with some real data from the American Time Use Survey for 2011.  Most of the leisure time segment at all education levels is for television and other screen-time recreation. Source: American Time Use Survey. Note: the amount of work time appears smaller than you may expect, because the data include both weekdays and weekends, averaged for working and non-working persons aged 15 and older.


Nicole said...
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Nicole said...

If increasing the benefit to allow for purchase of more convenience foods could possibly create negative health or environmental consequences, how do you think the committee should have proceeded? Do you see a better way to account for extremely time-constrained households without creating an incentive not to cook for others?

usfoodpolicy said...

I think that SNAP policy should come to grips with the diversity of life experiences and preferences in low-income families, giving families a high level of discretion in making their own best economic and household budgeting choices. Probably giving such discretion to all SNAP families is more promising than having the government try to figure out exactly which SNAP families are time-constrained.

For example, it might be unwise to try to give a higher per-person benefit to single-parent working families (presumably more time-constrained for cooking) than to two-parent families with a stay-at-home spouse (presumably less time-constrainted for cooking). Any such proposal would risk getting caught up in other unrelated cultural conservative/liberal divisions in U.S. policy-making.