Indian Country Could be Hardest Hit by Changes to SNAP in 2018 Farm Bill

35%. 34%. 31%. 23%. 21%. 20%. 19%.

These figures? They’re the SNAP participation rates for seven different counties in Montana, as reported out by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS). The seven highest countywide participation rates in the state, in fact. And one thing these counties – Glacier, Big Horn, Roosevelt, Rosebud, Hill, Blaine, and Lake, respectively – all have in common? One of the seven American Indian reservations in Montana can be found within their borders.

SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, helps more than 10% of families in Montana put food on the table each month. But American Indians participate in the program at disproportionately high rates.

In Montana, American Indian households account for 4% of all households. Yet, as of January 2018, American Indian households made up 10% of those participating in SNAP. Even more striking, one-fourth of American Indian households participate in the program, compared to one-tenth of Montana households overall, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

One reason for the disproportionate rates is the lack of sufficient employment opportunities. The issue, of course, is not unique to Indian Country. Many communities in Montana are strapped for jobs. In fact, DPHHS – the state agency that operates SNAP – has determined that 25 counties and six of the seven American Indian reservations in Montana don’t have sufficient employment opportunities. Unemployment rates on reservations are typically higher than they are off reservations. The Crow Indian Reservation, for example, experiences an unemployment rate of 13.9%, as compared to Montana’s overall unemployment rate of 3.8%. But the data don’t tell us the whole story, and many tribes are working to change the current story by actively seeking out ways to diversify and strengthen their economies. One way is by growing their tourism industries, a strategic business move that would help tribes grow local business and employment opportunities. In the meantime, SNAP provides a sense of security and helps families, children, and elders avoid hunger. That sense of security, however, is under threat.

This month, the House and Senate are coming together to reconcile their differences on their drafts of the Farm Bill, the broad piece of federal legislation that includes SNAP and is set to expire on September 30th. In June, the Senate passed its bill with overwhelming bipartisan support. The Senate bill would protect SNAP. Both Senators Tester and Daines voted in support. The House bill, on the other hand, passed by a razor-thin margin – 213-211. It proposes a strict work requirement on SNAP recipients and restricts eligibility, creating a scenario in which millions of people could have their benefits reduced or lose them altogether.

This is worrisome for the 120,000 Montanans who receive critical support from the program, but it’s especially troubling for Indian Country, where SNAP is already a demonstrated need and where DPHHS has determined that employment opportunities aren’t sufficient. Should the strict work requirements of the House bill make it through to the final bill, Indian Country would be among the hardest hit.

We know SNAP works. In 2016, the program lifted 3.6 million people out of poverty and provided many more with temporary assistance between jobs or in crisis. When House and Senate members negotiate a final Farm Bill, they should take the approach of the Senate — working in a bipartisan manner to produce a bill that improves, rather than weakens, SNAP for the families who rely on the program.

To learn more about SNAP, check out our report, SNAP Helps Grow a Healthy Workforce and a Healthy Economy.

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