Iowa to Spend Millions Kicking Families Off Food Stamps. More States May Follow.

Photo for The Washington Post by Kathryn Gamble
Phoelisa McGuire of Johnston, Iowa, volunteers at the Urbandale Food Pantry.

TAMA, Iowa – As an icy prairie wind slapped down on the empty town, Lisa Spitler pulled on winter gloves, grabbed a clipboard and started walking toward the cars idling outside the fire station. In two hours, a mobile food pantry would begin a free food distribution. The line of early arrivals already stretched a half-mile to where it dead-ends in this town of 3,000 residents east of Des Moines.

The outreach director for several of the region’s food banks, Spitler’s job was to connect hungry families with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the federal government’s most effective food assistance pipeline. She covered 28 counties across Iowa’s northeast corner. Spitler was there to see if SNAP could help, offering herself as a guide through the maze of bureaucratic forms and eligibility requirements.

“A household of one?” she asked the driver of a truck in Tama. She pointed to a figure on her clipboard. “Gross monthly income above or below $1,813?”

But even as she stopped at each vehicle to chat, she knew that it was about to become more difficult for Iowans to access the help.

The state legislature, with the support of the Republican supermajority, was poised to approve some of the nation’s harshest restrictions on SNAP. They include asset tests and new eligibility guidelines. By the state’s own estimate, Iowa will need to spend nearly $18 million in administrative costs during the first three years – to take in less federal money. The bill’s backers argue the steps would save the state money long term and cut down on “SNAP fraud.”

The measure is part of a broader national crackdown on SNAP, the federal program at the heart of the nation’s welfare system. The proposed legislation was not a homegrown effort but the product of a network of conservative think tanks pushing similar SNAP restrictions in Kentucky, Kansas, Wisconsin and other states. But experts say Iowa’s represents the boldest attack yet on SNAP, and Republicans in Congress have signaled a similar readiness to impose limits on federal food assistance.

“There are pockets where you are seeing a movement toward more restrictions to kick people off SNAP,” said Diane Schanzenbach, a professor at Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy. “But the SNAP program is really well-designed. It’s effective and efficient, and it does a tremendous amount of good. Generally, proposals to change it usually are going to make it worse.”

For Spitler, working down the line of cars in Tama as snowflakes started falling, the political battles over SNAP in Des Moines and beyond seemed out of step with what she saw on the ground. As of that February afternoon, nearly 270,000 Iowans were receiving food stamps through the program. But many residents were still struggling to eat – Spitler saw it every week as she visited dozens of rural small-town pantries and off-the-truck distributions. The lines were long, and they had been getting longer over the past year.

“I wanted to get food stamps and called them,” an elderly woman told Spitler. “But they said I would only get $23 a month.”

“I applied and they denied me,” a middle-aged man driving a pickup said.

“Reapply every so often,” Spitler urged. “The guidelines do change.”

At food banks, more new faces every month

Iowa’s food bank operators say any new restrictions on food stamps are likely to fuel a surge in demand. But they are not sure whether they can absorb it because they are still reeling from a decision last year to scale back SNAP benefits.

When the coronavirus pandemic started in 2020, the federal government temporarily raised its allotment of SNAP dollars for the 41 million Americans in the program. Then in April 2022, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) decided to end those emergency SNAP benefits a year early, leaving the 286,874 Iowans with less money each month for food.

Nonprofits also felt the impact when the federal money disappeared. Data collected by the food banks show the smaller SNAP payouts drove more Iowas to seek their help than at any point during the pandemic emergency. After April 2022, the 15 food banks that fall under the umbrella of the Des Moines Area Religious Council (DMARC) began seeing “numbers that we hadn’t seen for the past two years,” said Daniel Beck, the network’s data coordinator.

“When people get more SNAP, they don’t need food pantries as much,” Beck said. “That just a fact.”

One of those locations is the Urbandale Food Pantry, where the operation is tucked into a small suburban strip mall outside Des Moines. The staff had inked the monthly numbers of individuals served last year on a whiteboard in a backroom:

May 2022, 1,275.

July 2022, 1,380.

December 2022, 1,471.

Photo for The Washington Post by Kathryn Gamble
Patty Sneddon-Kisting, Urbandale Food Pantry executive director.

“In February 2023, we served 1,480 families compared to 800 served in February 2022,” said Patty Sneddon-Kisting, the food bank’s executive director. “That’s a 67 percent increase.”

Every month, 100 or so new families come to the pantry, compared to around 30 before the pandemic. Across DMARC’s network, nearly a third of the arrivals since April 2022 were accessing a food pantry for the first time.

“We knew there was going to be an increase. I don’t think anybody expected it to be as dramatic as it was,” said Sneddon-Kisting, the pantry’s only full-time employee since fall 2019. “I’ve blown through my budget multiple times over and over again.”

Amy Cunningham was kicked off SNAP earlier this year and had to rely almost exclusively on food banks.

The 31-year-old mother of four lives in Chariton, a small town of 3,000 south of Des Moines. Her monthly SNAP allotment had been $594. In January, she had an annual review, which required a round of paperwork to stay in the program.

But the information was mailed to an old address. By the time Cunningham got the forms in order, she had missed the deadline and was booted from the program. “I don’t have family left that I can really borrow money from,” she said. “I just didn’t know what I was going to do.”

To put food on the table, she used SNAP to supplement her earnings from a job at Subway. Even then, the family was a regular at a local food pantry. Cunningham did not have the luxury of choosing between SNAP and a food bank, or between having a job and using a food bank and SNAP. She needed every dollar, earned or given, and every grocery item, donated or purchased.

When she lost her job a few weeks after her SNAP benefits were cut, the food bank became Cunningham’s only source for food.

From then on, she fed her family mostly starches – spaghetti with red sauce, baked potatoes, ramen – while Cunningham herself skipped meals. She dropped 30 pounds in a month, she said, until finally, after hours on the phone with government offices, her SNAP card was reactivated.

“I felt rich,” she said. “That’s sad to say.”

Photo for The Washington Post by Kathryn Gamble
Amy Cunningham of Chariton, Iowa visits a park with her fiance, Brian Boggs Jr. and their children, Mylo and Tyrion, in Des Moines on April 7.

Spending money to reject money

Iowa ended 2022 with a general-fund budget surplus of $1.91 billion. But at the start of the 2023 legislative session, Republicans made clear that limiting access to SNAP was a priority because of cost concerns.

“It’s these entitlement programs,” House Speaker Pat Grassley (R), grandson of Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R), told reporters in January. “They’re the ones that are growing within the budget, and are putting pressure on us being able to fund other priorities. And so I think it’s time for us to take a serious look at what they are.”

If budget concerns were not driving the legislation, political opportunity was. In November 2022, Republicans expanded their majorities in both statehouse chambers.

In January, 39 Republican House members sponsored a bill that would require an asset test, meaning families and individuals are barred from accessing SNAP, Medicaid, and other assistance programs if the value of their cars, farm equipment or other items are too high. The measure would also create more paperwork for recipients, and ban those using SNAP from buying candy and soda, as well as fresh meat, white bread, baked beans or American cheese, among other items. None of the 39 legislators, including Grassley, responded to requests for comment.

The proposal’s backers argued that SNAP assistance de-incentivized families from working or from taking on more hours at the jobs they already had. They also pressed the case that the current program would eliminate “SNAP fraud.”

Republican supporters point to Iowa’s SNAP error rate of 11.81 percent in 2019, which the state was fined for, even though it was in line with the national standard in 2021. (The Agriculture Department warns that the error rate is “not a fraud rate” because it also includes underpayments and eligibility mistakes.)

Northwestern’s Schanzenbach noted that other states are moving toward fewer eligibility requirements, not more, because around 40 percent of SNAP recipients nationally are either elderly or disabled. “They have stable incomes then, so there is just not really much of an upside to having them certify more often,” she said.

Eventually, Iowa legislators stripped the food restrictions from the SNAP bill after a number of prominent players in state business – including the Iowa Beverage Association, the Iowa Association of Business and Industry and Tyson Foods – lobbied against the bill.

But the version of the proposal that the legislature would later vote on kept the assets test, tasked the state with contracting with a third-party vendor to conduct rigorous identity verification and authentication on recipients, raised the monthly income threshold of SNAP participants to 160 percent of the federal poverty level for households and gave recipients only 10 days to respond to paperwork mistakes or discrepancies before they are cut from the program.

Enacting the bill is expected to cost Iowa more than $17 million in the first three years, far more than the $2.2 million the state spends each year to administer SNAP. (The federal government funds SNAP and splits administrative costs 50-50 with the state. Last year, Iowa received $60.4 million in federal SNAP funds).

Most of that amount would go toward hiring workers and installing systems to process, authenticate and monitor compliance.

Opponents in the Iowa Capitol and beyond wonder if the expense is really necessary to police the rolls of a federal program that for many recipients is still not enough to live on.

“The arguments in favor of this bill are just myths and misleading stereotypes,” said state Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott, a Democrat who voted against the bill.

A Florida think tank

As the SNAP bill wove through the statehouse, a long list of interest groups came out against it, including the Iowa Grocery Industry Association, the Iowa Catholic Conference and the Iowa Farmers Union.

Its biggest proponent was the Opportunity Solutions Project, a Florida think tank that has successfully shepherded similar bills through other statehouses.

The nonprofit says it shares “high-quality research and data analysis with state lawmakers to ensure new laws are carefully crafted to expand opportunity and freedom for all.” According to OpenSecret, the group had registered 57 active lobbyists in 22 states in 2022.

The OSP is the lobbying arm of the Foundation for Government Accountability. Both groups are run by Maine state legislator Tarren Bragdon, who started the FGA in 2011 with three employees and less than $60,000 in the group’s bank account. According to tax records, that money was a grant from the State Policy Network, a major funder for right-wing think tanks and organizations that has been linked to conservative superdonors such as Charles Koch and the DeVos family. OSP did not respond to calls for comment.

As of 2021, the organization has grown to more than 40 staff members, 40 contractors, and a $12.5 million annual budget. Although the group has expanded into pushing for election integrity laws in battleground states, the bulk of its mission seems to the aimed at cutting welfare programs to “free individuals from the trap of government dependence.”

The FGA claimed “144 state policy wins” in 2022, and many of them targeted SNAP access. In Wisconsin, Opportunity Solutions promoted legislation requiring drug testing for emergency food programs and placing restrictions on Medicaid access. Legislators in Kentucky and Kansas signed off on similar legislation promoted by the FGA and OSP.

The group’s annual report for 2022 noted the recent GOP gains in both chambers of the Iowa Capitol and listed the Hawkeye State in the “Redder and Better” column for future policy wins.

The bill passes

At the Iowa house chamber Thursday, the SNAP proposal came up for a final vote.

“Why are we doing a bill structured like this? Who was for this?” Rep. Timi Brown-Powers (D) asked during the floor debate. “The Opportunity Solutions Project was for it, but I don’t see an opportunity for many people in this bill.”

Democrats raised concerns about the economic costs of the bill.

“This bill makes poor use of state resources, ramping up administration costs in order to take federal resources out of Iowa’s economy,” said Rep. Jeff Cooling (D). “This bill will also grow the size of government. I may be a Democrat, but I’m not in favor of big government … this bill is neither efficient government nor fiscally responsible government.”

And opponents of the bill tried to appeal to the morality of fellow legislators.

“It is a continuation of the myth that persons on aid programs are cheats gaming the system,” said Rep. Monica Kurth (D). “This is another way this body is blaming the victim by passing bad legislation.”

But in the end, the bill’s backers stayed firm. Reynolds is likely to sign the legislation into law.

“Federal tax dollars and state tax dollars all come from the taxpayers,” Rep. Joel Fry (R) said before moving the legislation to a vote. “House Republicans believe that maintaining this safety net is critical for all Iowans – those who receive as well as those who give.”

The bill passed 58 to 41.