When the economy went into a tailspin in 2008, 55,000 Utah families participated in the food-stamps program. That number has since jumped to roughly 115,000, according to low-income advocate Bill Tibbitts of the Crossroads Urban Center. There are more Utahns in need, but one thing they are not in need of is actual food stamps—since, for more than a decade, nothing resembling a “stamp” has been in circulation for low-income families to trade in for groceries.
Like most other states, Utah switched to a swipeable card that is tied to a specific client, moving away from the paper coupon that could be lost, stolen or fraudulently abused. The federal government renamed the program in 2008 since states no longer use paper stamps. That’s why Tibbitts has been working with Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, on a bill for the upcoming session that would explore renaming the program in Utah to what the federal government calls it—the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. But even a simple name change might not be a snap if renaming the program costs the state too much.
“My feeling is that if there is a way we can be more in line with other states, then it’s a modest fix we should consider making,” Chavez-Houck says.
But what’s in a name, after all, and is a name change worth new costs? According to the Utah Department of Workforce Services, the tab for the name change could cost the state $250,000—a number Chavez-Houck says she finds “steep” but that she hopes may be something the Legislature can work with.
For Tibbitts, the program needs an update to do away with the baggage of the old program as being shameful or one that was prone to abuse.
“Changing the program name is one way of drawing attention to the fact that this is not the same program that was demonized in the ’70s and ’80s,” Tibbitts says.
Utah, like all other states, adapted an electronic-benefits transfer, or EBT card, in the ’90s. Utah’s Horizon Card functions like a debit card and is considerably less susceptible to fraud, theft and waste than were the paper stamps first issued with the original 1964 Food Stamp Act. Utah is one of only eight states that still uses the food stamp moniker.
For Chavez-Houck, one of the most important benefits to changing the name is that it would actually correspond with what the program does.
“It’s helpful for clients to apply and understand what [SNAP] is and it better reflects the scope of the program,” Chavez-Houck says. She points out that applying for assistance can be confusing and intimidating, and is even more so when applicants try to understand that the federal program is called SNAP in some documents but “food stamps” on local forms.
Currently, Chavez-Houck is working with the Utah Department of Workforce Services to figure out the logistics of a name change. The initial estimate she has received is that it would cost DWS $500,000 to change the name on government applications, pamphlets and other literature. She says one-time federal assistance could cover half of that, leaving a $250,000 fiscal note for the Legislature.
Chavez-Houck, hopes the issue can be explored more, but she also doesn’t want to push a costly change on the department. Still, she says there may be cost savings in the long run that could justify the $250,000 expense. She notes that Wyoming’s legislature made the name change in 2008 and experienced some savings as a result because they could use federal SNAP forms and didn’t have to produce as much of their own state literature.
The program, which is funded 100 percent by the federal government, only requires Utah to cover the cost of administration. DWS is also currently being reorganized, and Tibbitts says the agency often struggles for legislative support.
“It’s a fight just to get the state Legislature to fully fund administration of the program every year,” Tibbitts says, noting that since 2008 DWS “actually processes more than twice as many cases without as many [employees].”
Chavez-Houck says she will continue to examine ways to bring the taxpayer bill down. One idea is that the change could simply be implemented whenever the department is next scheduled to update its literature.
“Some people might think why it’s such a big deal,” Chavez-Houck says. For her, that’s simple: “Making sure that people who need food have what they need.”