It has become a set piece of political theater for liberal Democrats, carried out in recent weeks by everyone from New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner to Connecticut senator Chris Murphy and a bevy of congressmen: attempting to eat on the $4.50-per-day food budget supposedly provided by the Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the program formerly known as “food stamps.” While always good for a headline, and generally accompanied by amusing photographs of the bizarre meals the politicians cobble together on their meager budget, the so-called SNAP challenge is also arrant nonsense.
To start with, virtually no one in America actually has to eat on just $4.50 per day. That number is derived by simply dividing the SNAP program’s budget by the number of recipients, arriving at an average benefit of $133.44 per month, or roughly $4.45 per day. However, that doesn’t tell us much about the size of the benefit that most families actually receive. For instance, SNAP benefits increase with family size. Thus, a family of four would receive $668 in benefits.
More important, the SNAP payments are not intended to be a family’s sole food income. As Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler pointed out, in pulling out a pair of Pinocchios for the SNAP challenge: “Note that the name of the program refers to ‘supplemental’ assistance.” SNAP benefits vary with income. Individuals with low incomes receive much higher SNAP benefits. Conversely, those individuals receiving the lowest benefits — say, $4.50 per day — are doing so precisely because they have other sources of income.
Indeed, the poorest SNAP recipients are almost universally receiving other welfare benefits, especially Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Medicaid. We should remember that there are actually 126 separate federal anti-poverty programs, and while no one receives benefits under every one of those programs, most poor people are eligible for benefits under multiple programs. SNAP isn’t even the only federal food program: There are currently 21 different programs providing food or food-purchasing assistance, administered by three different federal departments and one independent agency.
The latest dustup over SNAP was spurred by $20.5 billion in cuts to SNAP over the next ten years that were included in the late, unlamented farm bill. Democrats complained that those cuts were “a poison pill” that forced them to vote against the bill. Their votes, together with those of anti-spending Republicans, killed the farm bill, in a major setback for House Speaker John Boehner. Granted, the farm bill, a bloated and costly giveaway to special interests and one of the wealthier segments of society, should have been poisoned; but the Democratic objections to SNAP cuts were much ado about nothing.
The proposed SNAP cuts would have eventually reduced spending on the program all the way back to levels slightly higher than those of 2010, a year not particularly noted for mass starvation, and still higher than those of any year before that.
Indeed, few welfare programs have grown faster in recent years than SNAP. As with most federal spending, the increase started under President Bush, then escalated rapidly under President Obama. Since 2000, spending on SNAP increased from just $17 billion per year to more than $78 billion in 2012, a greater than fourfold increase. The increased spending was driven both by an increase in the number of recipients (a surge from 17 million in 2000 to more than 48 million today) and an average benefit per person that has almost doubled. Today, nearly one out of every six Americans receives SNAP.
Of course, some of this increase could be considered countercyclical, because welfare programs automatically expand during economic downturns, such as in the recent recession. However, increases in both participation and spending were bigger during this recession than in previous ones. For example, during the 1980–82 recession, enrollment in food stamps increased by only 635,000, and spending rose by just $124 million (in constant 2012 dollars). During the 1990–92 recession and jobless recovery, enrollment increased by 5.2 million, and spending rose by $9.1 billion. During the current recession (over a comparable three-year period), enrollment increased by 12 million people, while spending increased by $30 billion, which suggests that much of the increase was due, not to the economy, but to deliberate policy choices.
Moreover, looking forward, the Congressional Budget Office projects that both enrollment and spending will remain above pre-recession levels, even as the recovery limps along and unemployment declines. According to CBO, spending will never fall below $73 billion per year over the next decade and enrollment will remain above 34 million (enrollment will also still be as high as 45 million in 2016).
In fact, SNAP’s eligibility requirements have been significantly relaxed. This is no longer a program targeted at the poorest Americans who may need some temporary help, but has become part of an ever-growing welfare state. Nearly 17 percent of SNAP households have incomes above the poverty line. Almost 4.5 million recipients are able-bodied adults without children, more than 10 percent of the beneficiaries.
Especially in conjunction with other welfare programs, SNAP helps breed dependency and undermines the work ethic. Like much of the American welfare state, it is designed to make poverty a little more comfortable, not to get people out of poverty.
SNAP suffers from numerous other problems as well. The program’s administrative costs are extremely high, as much as $4.5 billion per year. Additionally, SNAP has a high rate of fraud and abuse. According to the Department of Agriculture, food-stamp fraud costs taxpayers at least $750 million annually, much of it committed not by recipients but by vendors.
Largely because of the switch from cash benefits to EBT cards, the fraud rate has improved somewhat in recent years; but because the program has ballooned in size during that same time period, the amount of money lost to waste and fraud is still significant.
And, finally, it should be noted that SNAP frequently subsidizes unhealthy food. At a time when obesity is a major national problem, should the federal government really be subsidizing the purchase of “soft drinks, candy, cookies, snack crackers, and ice cream,” as noted by the DOA? Before we ban sodas for the rest of us, shouldn’t we stop forcing taxpayers to buy them for other people?
Backers of SNAP argue that food stamps have had a long history of bipartisan support. Indeed, they have. Liberal Democrats have unsurprisingly backed an expansion of the welfare state, while farm-state Republicans have been happy to have government-subsidized purchases of their states’ products. But “bipartisan policy” and “good policy” rarely mean the same thing.
No American should ever go hungry. But the best solution to poverty remains a growing economy that produces jobs and prosperity, not poorly targeted, bureaucratic welfare programs.
Perhaps Democrats worried about poverty should drop the stunts, have themselves a good meal, and do something to cut taxes, reduce debt, and revive economic growth.
— Michael Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and author of Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution.