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News Flash! Food Stamps Need Reform
More than 80 programs dispense welfare to a third of Americans — time for a moral transformation.


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Robert Rector

In a recent NRO article, Henry Olsen charges that the Heritage Foundation is leading a “conservative war on food stamps” that will take “food from the mouths of the genuinely hungry.” He declares this the “most baffling political move of the year.”

A bit of background is in order. Food stamps are merely the tip of a much larger iceberg. In 2012, government spent $916 billion on more than 80 different means-tested welfare programs, not including Social Security or Medicare. These programs provide cash, food, housing, medical care, and social services to poor and low-income Americans. Food stamps accounted for 10 percent of that total.

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Each month, one out of every three Americans receives aid from at least one of these anti-poverty programs. Overall spending comes to around $9,000 per recipient per year. Over the next decade, government will spend around $12.7 trillion on these programs. In that context, the proposed cuts in the food-stamp program are barely a rounding error.

This spending represents the hidden welfare state, because most policymakers and citizens are unaware of its existence. The Heritage Foundation long has promoted two principles for reforming this behemoth.

First, reformers should frame the debate by discussing welfare as a whole. They should consistently point to all 80-plus welfare programs together, and to the resulting $916 billion in aggregate spending. This framing would overturn the status quo in welfare. Habitually, welfare is debated one program at a time. This piecemeal approach enables the Left to depict the welfare state as pathetically small and to pretend that the particular program under review is the lone, frail reed standing between the poor and starvation. By contrast, the Left has considerable difficulty defending the $916 billion price tag or explaining why this ever-climbing sum can never be rolled back.

Second, reformers should call for the moral transformation of welfare. These programs should not be one-way handouts. Instead, they ought to be based on a reciprocal obligation between taxpayers and recipients. Those in need of aid should receive assistance; in return, they should take steps toward supporting themselves. This principle was the foundation of welfare reform in 1996. The main problem was that we reformed only one anti-poverty program out of 80.

Americans overwhelmingly agree with this principle of reciprocal obligation. More than 95 percent, according to a Heritage survey, agree that “able-bodied adults that receive cash, food, housing and medical assistance should be required to work or prepare for work as a condition of receiving those government benefits.” In fact, over 95 percent of self-identified Democrats agree with this.

Of the 80-plus anti-poverty programs operating today, only two have meaningful work rules. The food-stamp program is not one of them.

It is tempting to call food stamps a fossil, but that would be flattery. The program is worse today than when it was created four decades ago. Changes in eligibility standards have allowed states to enroll an ever-broadening recipient base, all on the federal taxpayers’ dime.

True, the efforts of the current House to reform food stamps have been flawed. Budget cutters have once again painted themselves into a corner by proposing cuts to a single welfare program without a preparatory discussion about the overall size of the welfare state. This renders reformers needlessly vulnerable to the traditional “stinginess” counterpunch from liberals.

Worse, the “work requirements” in the House food-stamp bill are remarkably feeble, nothing more than suggestions. The measure would only make it optional, for instance, for states to require work or work-related activity in exchange for food stamps. Nonetheless, almost any effort is better than doing nothing. Policymakers can’t simply reauthorize the food-stamp dinosaur and allow it to trundle along for another five years.

Olsen is correct that conservatives need a better message than “let’s cut welfare spending.” Republicans far too often let policy be dictated by a green-eyeshade mentality and ignore the moral dimensions of welfare.

Conservatives must shape welfare reform not merely with budgetary considerations, but also with an informed and abiding concern for the long-term well-being of the poor.

Reform-minded policymakers did a better job shaping policy and framing messages during the 1990s. Today’s conservatives can learn something from them.  

— Robert Rector is senior research fellow in domestic policy at the Heritage Foundation. He concentrates on welfare and poverty issues. 



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