Politics & Policy

Food-Stamp Folly

Senator Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.)
SNAP participation has increased, even as unemployment has dropped.

To hear critics such as Paul Krugman, the New York Times editorial board, Ezra Klein, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the president, etc., you’d think congressional Republicans want to slash food-stamp funding to finance handouts to defense contractors. But, in relation to the scope of the structural dysfunction of the food-stamp program, the reforms proposed by congressional Republicans are actually very modest.

The Food Stamp Program was originally included in the Department of Agriculture under the high New Deal logic that the federal government could prop up one sector (agriculture) by subsidizing others (“under-nourished inner city folks with outstretched hands” according to Milo Perkins, the program’s first administrator) to buy its products. This original reasoning no longer applies and is largely forgotten. Nonetheless, under the Farm Bill currently being debated in the Senate, the food-stamp program would account for $80 billion of the Department of Agriculture’s $100 billion budget. As a staff member of the Senate Budget Committee tells NRO, this is a Food Stamp Bill, not a Farm Bill.

Such massive scocpe wasn’t always the norm for the Food Stamp Program (which was recently renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in a largely unsuccessful attempt to remove the stigma of “food stamps”). In 2000, only 17.3 million people were on food stamps. That number has ballooned to 46.6 million. Of course, it makes sense that participation in a countercyclical program would increase during a recession. But the number of people using food stamps has grown much more than the participation in other similar programs. For example, Medicaid spending increased 27 percent during the recession, while food-stamp spending has jumped 110 percent.

Conversely, as the unemployment rate has come down in the last couple of years, the participation rates have actually jumped. From FY 2009 to FY 2011 the number of people receiving food stamps increased by 11.2 million even while the unemployment rate declined modestly. Even according to the rosy economic predictions of the Congressional Budget Office, the number of people on food stamps is projected to drop back only to 33.7 million by 2022, a time in which the unemployment rate is expected to fall to 5.3 percent. This projection of 33.7 million recipients is still slightly higher than the number of people on food stamps in the heart of the recession in 2009, and it’s almost twice the number of recipients in 2000.

Most of the program’s expansion can be attributed to gradual changes in its structure that have, over time, undone most of the reforms of 1996. The 1996 reforms incentivized work in a very moderate way by stating that able-bodied recipients without dependents would receive benefits only three out of every 36 months unless they worked at least part time. As part of the stimulus act, that requirement was removed from April 2009 until October 2010. Nearly all states (46 of them) have received waivers to continue this exemption. The 1996 reforms also pegged increases in the maximum allotment to the inflation of the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP), a USDA guideline of the annual cost of a diet that provides adequate nutrition. The stimulus act increased the maximum benefits level by 13.6 percent beyond the USDA’s TFP.

Even the maligned House Sequester Replacement Reconciliation Act, designed to reorient the Budget Control Act’s discretionary sequester to decrease the disproportionate impact on defense spending, would cut federal food-stamp funding by only 4 percent over the next decade. By comparison, SNAP fraud last year accounted for about 3.9 percent of the program’s funds. As the House Budget Committee points out, even with the sequester replacement adjustment, food-stamp spending in 2013 will be 2.6 times greater than it was in 2002.

State policies have also played a hand in the slow structural expansion of the program. Under federal provisions, anyone who is eligible for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families benefits or any other kind of cash welfare assistance is “categorically eligible” for food stamps, regardless of whether or not they meet the requirements for food stamps themselves. Different states have different interpretations of this provision, and their definitions have tended to get looser as time goes by. In January, California made all children in foster care categorically eligible for food stamps. Senator Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.) recently noted that Minnesota has nixed eligibility requirements as long as a SNAP applicant has received a Domestic Violence Information Brochure (which is available to anyone online).

In the Senate, Sessions has submitted an amendment that would restrict categorical eligibility to a national standard that is closer to the spirit of the original provision. Categorical eligibility ended in 1977; Congress discontinued it on the argument that only those who specifically qualify for food stamps should receive them. Unfortunately, categorical eligibility was reinstated in the 1980s, but the 1977 reform shows that Sessions’s amendment is moderate by modern standards.

In short, SNAP is a supposedly countercyclical program that saw its enrollment increase by 25 percent as unemployment dropped. Per-capita spending on the program doubled between 2007 and 2010. The House’s small funding cut and reforms such as Senator Sessions’s (there are about 200 other amendments to the Farm Bill on the table) are just small steps toward reining in a fundamentally flawed program.

— Nash Keune is a Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow at the Franklin Center.


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