An op-ed was published recently that urged support for legislation that would re-impose the tax on food as part of a reform of the state’s gross receipts tax, our GRT. This could have a very harmful impact on poor and low-income families, despite the arguments made to the contrary. The op-ed brought up some commonly misunderstood issues relating to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – or food stamps – but it left out a big part of the story.
If New Mexico reinstated the GRT on food, SNAP purchases would still be exempt from the tax. But that does not mean poor and low-income New Mexicans would be protected from paying higher grocery bills. SNAP does not cover all necessary food purchases for the New Mexicans who receive it, and many New Mexicans who are poor enough to be eligible for SNAP aren’t covered by the program for a variety of reasons.
The fact is that SNAP benefits are inadequate in addressing food insecurity and food access issues in New Mexico. Too many New Mexico kids and families live this reality every day. Even with SNAP, food pantries and school lunches, more than 27 percent of all New Mexico children are food insecure – that’s the second-worst rate in the nation. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that more than half of SNAP households nationwide experience food insecurity or hunger.
SNAP benefits are distributed on a monthly basis, and the USDA also reports that 80 percent of SNAP benefits are used up within the first two weeks. This exhaustion of SNAP benefits over the course of the month is linked to declining test scores and more disciplinary actions in school, and increased hospitalization rates among children whose families receive SNAP.
And not everyone who needs SNAP benefits gets them. In fact, the USDA estimates that 24 percent of New Mexicans who are poor enough for SNAP don’t get it either because they cannot overcome the barriers to apply or because they are denied benefits for other reasons. Any assertion that SNAP covers all food for poor New Mexicans – but that ignores the quarter of the poor population that needs but doesn’t get SNAP – is leaving out an important piece of the story.
What it comes down to is that many people in New Mexico just don’t have regular access to a sufficient source of nutritious food. According to a study commissioned by the New Mexico Association of Foodbanks – a group of organizations that see the real-world impacts of food insecurity and hunger on New Mexicans every single day – low-income New Mexicans miss about 12 meals per month, or three meals per week on average. That’s the equivalent of having a city the size of Santa Fe need emergency food every seven days.
Have you ever had to make the choice about whether to buy food or buy medicine? Whether to go grocery shopping for your kids or keep the heat on for them at home? A study published last year in the Albuquerque Journal showed that 60 percent of food insecure New Mexicans have. If you haven’t, you might want to consider what that choice would feel like.
A 2016 study from Auburn and Cornell economists found that even slightly increasing food grocery taxes led to an increased risk of food insecurity and hunger. In a state with the second highest rate of childhood food insecurity – and where half of the state is considered a food desert with low access to food – is taxing food really something we should consider? Should it really rise to the top of the many revenue options that the state has? We don’t think so.
Almost every other state has found a way to raise adequate revenue to fund the crucial health, education, and public service functions of government without taxing food. If other states can find options for funding government without taxing the most basic of human necessities, then we can, should, and must, too.