Politics & Policy

Make Food Stamps Make Sense

Modest work requirements are reasonable.

Jason Voorhees (I., Camp Crystal Lake) is a slasher; Eric Cantor (R., Virginia) is not. Representative Cantor is at most a trimmer, not that you would know it from recent headlines raising the alarm over his plan to “slash” food-stamp spending. He has just helped shepherd through the House a bill that would reduce food-stamp spending by approximately 5 percent, impose some modest work/job-training requirements on able-bodied adults without children, tighten eligibility standards, and delegate some responsibility for the program from the federal government to the states. It is a bill that deserves support.

President Obama’s “Recovery Summer” is a franchise with almost as many sequels as the Friday the 13th series, and as the closing credits begin to roll on Recovery Summer 5: This Time It’s Different, it is undoubtedly the case that diminished household wealth and an anemic job market have combined to leave many more Americans in the vulnerable economic position that food stamps and similar programs are intended to alleviate. The Great Recession ended in 2009, but there are about 300,000 fewer jobs today than when Barack Obama became president. The increase in the number of Americans receiving food stamps since the end of the recession is about 10 million, a rate of growth that is far out of proportion to the underlying economic reality, bad as it is. Spending on food stamps today is at more than double pre-recession levels.

#ad#Fraud is not the main problem with food stamps, though it is a significant one; just this week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture cited California, where fraud is estimated to cost the food-stamp program some $79 million a year, for its negligent enforcement of program rules. Indictments have been handed down in Baltimore, New York City, New Jersey, and many other locations.

But the fraud is not as worrisome as is the cultivation of long-term government dependency. The work requirements, which are limited to able-bodied adults under 50 without dependent children, are a worthwhile reform in this light. Those who have been dependent on food stamps for more than three months over any three-year period would be required either to work 20 hours a week, perform equivalent community service, or enroll in an approved job-training program. We have in the past had good luck with applying similar work requirements to the receipt of welfare payments — at least, we have when the government is willing to enforce the rules — and we can expect similar success in the matter of food stamps. Contrary to the Democrats’ cartoon, work requirements are not punitive measures; they are intended to inculcate in food-stamp recipients the habits necessary to obtaining full-time employment and subsequent liberation from dependency on federal handouts. If that sounds paternalistic, it is; if there is a group of Americans who are in need of a dose of hardheaded paternalism, it is able-bodied adults who are unable to feed themselves. Long-term separation from the work force is a serious problem, both for the economy at large and, more important, for individuals and households. Taking even modest steps to discourage that and to incentivize work is critical to steering the country out of its current economic straits.

To that end, the bill would also place restrictions on what is known as “categorical eligibility,” the assumption that households eligible for one form of public assistance are automatically eligible for food stamps. This has proven at times inappropriate, such as when food stamps have been offered to beneficiaries of state-level utilities-assistance programs with loose and elastic standards — or when food stamps are given to households that simply receive a TANF brochure in the mail. Most of the savings in the House bill come from reducing or eliminating benefits from households with incomes that exceed federal eligibility requirements but that nonetheless receive food stamps under categorical eligibility.

We are not going to let the poor go hungry. But if Democrats are genuinely interested in their economic well-being, then their first order of business should be confronting the Obama administration, which has pig-headedly stuck to a program that has ensured the weakest post-recession recovery in memory. Food stamps are not a long-term solution to anybody’s problems — jobs are.

The Editors — The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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