Politics & Policy

For Food Stamps, a Real Work Requirement

The failure of the House farm bill in June was a victory against logrolling. An alliance of rural supporters of farm subsidies and urban supporters of food welfare had for years discouraged reform of either set of programs. When that bill collapsed, House leaders split its two portions. It has passed the farm subsidies, unfortunately with little in the way of reform. It still has a chance, though, to improve food stamps.

The most important reform is that proposed by Representative Steve Southerland (R., Fla.): the beginnings of real work requirements for the program. The program has had since 1996 a weak work requirement, and even that was suspended — first by statute in the stimulus bill, then in 46 waivers that the Obama administration has handed down to the states. Southerland’s amendment would let states impose the work requirements that currently apply to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (usually known as “welfare”). Able-bodied recipients of that aid have to spend 30 hours each week in “work activities” such was working, looking for work, or getting job training. For recipients with small children, the requirement is for 20 hours. The amendment would let state governments keep half the savings from cutting the food-stamp rolls.

The proposal is being treated as a piece of Dickensian heartlessness. States will supposedly now have an incentive to keep families in hunger. The status quo, however, rewards the states for swelling the food-stamp rolls — and swell they have. Participation in food stamps doubled from 2009 to 2010. The rolls now include many people who are not destitute. A record 47 million Americans — one in seven — receive food stamps. In 2010, over half of recipients were above the official poverty line, and one in five were in households earning more than twice the poverty-line income.

Encouraging attachment, or reattachment, to the labor market is one of the most helpful things that federal welfare programs can do for people: The evidence suggests that the loss of work habits and of an orientation toward work are extremely damaging and hard to reverse. The work requirements of TANF — the major innovation of the 1996 federal welfare-reform legislation — have helped people get off the welfare rolls and into productive employment. That success ought to be replicated in other federal antipoverty programs.

At the same time, Congress should enact other reforms to ensure that food stamps go only to those who need them. Right now merely receiving a TANF brochure is often sufficient to be eligible for food stamps. Combine this with states’ ending asset limits (with the Obama administration’s quiet encouragement) for food-stamp recipients, and now, in most states, a person can join the rolls without any consideration of whether he is in economic need. Congress should end these abuses and also force more aggressive efforts to combat simple fraud, which has been estimated to consume 4 percent of the annual food-stamp budget.

The failed farm bill included a measly 2.5 percent spending cut to the program (a 4 percent cut was rejected in committee). Democrats howled — as they did over the decoupling of food stamps from farm subsidies, and over the Southerland amendment. Democrats took to the House floor last week to declare the proposed farm bill “a vote to end nutrition in America” (Rosa DeLauro, Conn.) and an effort to “put starving children in the abyss” (Sheila Jackson Lee, Texas). Expect to hear much more about starving children in the coming weeks.

Yet if the history of welfare programs in this country provides any lesson, it is that the best kind of assistance for struggling Americans is the kind that helps them regain their independence.


The Latest