On Tuesday’s Morning Joe, the actor Jeff Bridges joined nutrition advocate Bill Shore in observing that, for the “first time in history,” there are “45 million on food stamps.” The pair then related that they had recently attended “a dinner with [Agriculture] Secretary Vilsack,” at which they had learned that “one of two kids in the United States will be on food assistance at some point in their childhood.”
“That’s remarkable,” said Bridges.
It is remarkable, indeed. And it is even worse than Bridges and Shore let on. In truth, “at some point in their childhood” is a rather vague way of putting it: According to a 2010 American Dietetic Association report, “half of all [American] children participate in at least one nutrition assistance program in their first five years of life.” Along with so many of the other numbers in American government, this one is growing.
Food stamps have been the silent welfare story of the Obama economy, and many are keen to keep them that way by shutting down discussion at the outset. When Newt Gingrich described Obama as “the best food-stamp president in American history,” the NAACP was quick to chime in with the typical accusations of racism, describing his remarks as “divisive” and “inaccurate.” Divisive they may have been — such things are in the eye of the beholder — but inaccurate? Certainly not.
Gingrich’s characterization was entirely fair. Since Obama’s inauguration, 18 million people have been added to the food-stamp rolls; spending on the program has doubled — it cost $75.7 billion in 2011 compared to $35 billion in 2008; and enrollment has hit an all-time high of 46.7 million recipients. Meanwhile, the number of children receiving free school lunches has inflated from 18 to 21 million — an unprecedented jump — and 53 percent of all American infants are receiving support from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, more commonly known as WIC. Business is booming.
To put these increases into context: The Congressional Budget Office reports that, since 2008, the federal government has increased defense and transportation spending by 11 percent each, and Medicaid spending by 27 percent. Over that same period, spending on food-stamp and nutritional programs has expanded by 110 percent. Eight in ten dollars in the farm bill are now spent on food stamps.
For this deluge, the economy bears much responsibility. But that the president is not the sole architect of the phenomenon is not to say that he is as vexed by it as he should be. Bobby Jindal’s caustic criticism that the administration appears to measure success by “how many people are on food stamp rolls and government-run health care” rings true.
If the president is uncomfortable with one in seven Americans’ being on food stamps, he has a funny way of showing it. In early 2012, the USDA was criticized for running advertisements that encouraged reluctant citizens to enroll because it would help them eat right and thus look good. At around the same time, the department partnered with the Mexican government to try to sign up “eligible Mexican nationals.” Despite these scandals, neither the administration nor the Democrats in Congress have shown much inclination toward reforming the programs, which are rife with inefficiencies. Nor, until recently, have Republicans. From 2001 to 2006, the food-stamp budget doubled, despite unemployment levels’ staying around the 5 percent mark. That is dependency without a cause, and it is shameful.
Not everyone is unhappy with this state of affairs. The American Dietetic Association wants federal nutrition programs to cover all those eligible as a matter of policy, lamenting in 2010 that “current participation in many programs is below 100 percent due to barriers.” These “many programs” include food stamps, the School Breakfast Program, the National School Lunch program, various summer nutrition programs, and WIC. “Without these programs,” ADA has argued, “millions of infants, children and adolescents in the U.S. may not reach their full developmental potential.” Here, the ADA has found common cause with Michelle Obama in fancying government-sponsored nutritional programs as a good in their own right.
It should come as no great surprise that so many children are being welcomed into the federal fold. The incentives to increase participation are often perverse, and Democrats in the Senate have blocked any attempts at reform. A raft of changes proposed by Republican Senator Jeff Sessions were dismissed out of hand by Harry Reid in June of this year. Among other things, Sessions submitted that granting bonus cash to the states simply for racking up enrollees was perhaps not the best of ideas, especially with a program that is wholly funded by the federal government; advocated ending “categorical eligibility,” which automatically enrolls people who do not need food stamps purely because they are eligible for other government assistance; and recommended a new system — “SAVE” (Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements) — that would ensure that no stamps went to illegal immigrants. Republicans also objected to the school breakfast and lunch programs’ enrolling children automatically. All Sessions’s proposals were killed without a vote.
There is a legitimate debate to be had about the role of government in a poor economy, and in this food stamps will inevitably play a role. But, as with all welfare programs, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that nutrition assistance is treated as what it is: a temporary solution to an economic problem. Such provisions always run the risk of being hijacked by those who see them as an opportunity to accomplish their personal policy goals on the sly; and when they are permitted to do so, it is the health of the republic that suffers most.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.