Politics & Policy

The Abuse and Unhealthy Consequences of Food Stamps

(Photo: Yongnian Gui/Dreamstime)
Trump and Congress have a chance to reform the system.

With the pending reauthorization of the farm bill next year, President Trump and the Republican Congress have the chance to reform a food-stamp system that is spiraling out of control. In doing so, they should focus on two key problems with the status quo: the abuse of federal aid by participants who should not qualify for it, and the unhealthy consequences of cheap and non-nutritional food choices.

Make no mistake: The system is being abused. For years, my family and I have stood in long lines through sweltering summer and freezing winter days to collect food from food pantries or requalify for food stamps. While doing so, we’ve watched as highly under- if not unqualified people stand beside us in line, gaming the system and making a lifestyle out of welfare. These people wear expensive shoes and name-brand clothes; they hold the latest iPhones and carry designer bags. Disgracefully, they await the same benefits as the members of my family who wear torn and hand-me-down clothes.

According to a report from the Heritage Foundation, more than $10.5 billion in food stamps are provided to almost 5 million “able-bodied adults without dependents” (ABAWDs) each year – that is nearly $200 per person per month. These individuals are between the ages of 18 and 49, neither have nor live with children under 18, maintain no physical or mental disability, and are not pregnant. More than half of them smoke cigarettes each month — “on average 19 packs of cigarettes” costing around $111 per month. Additionally, the report illustrates the high levels of fraud associated with these ABAWDs such as underreported income.

To call it unfair is an understatement. At eight years old, I would stand in those lines and think of the people who can’t rightfully qualify for nutritional assistance because other people lack respect for the system. What I didn’t realize back then was that these abusers weren’t the problem; the system itself was.

The new administration has proposed several avenues of reform. One is to cut federal funding for food stamps by 25 percent. This would not necessarily mean a reduction in benefits, as Trump and other politicians have encouraged states to provide their own funding to make up the difference. But if states were footing the bill, they would have a greater incentive to limit the assistance to genuinely eligible individuals and families.

Work requirements are another idea to reduce abuse. By requiring beneficiaries to prove that they are employed or actively looking for work, governments can prevent recipients from making a “lifestyle” based on welfare. When Maine imposed these requirements on food stamps — allowing those who couldn’t find jobs to perform community service or attend job-training programs instead — it saw its caseload decline 80 percent among able-bodied adults without dependent children.

The second issue is one that Michelle Obama dedicated eight years to, but from the wrong angle. Obesity in the United States is undoubtedly a growing concern and issue. Two-thirds of adults and one-third of children are overweight or obese, and these issues are linked to more than 60 chronic diseases. The dilemma lies in the availability of unhealthy-but-cheap food and healthy-yet-expensive food. It has become a pattern in the developed world for those who are less wealthy to be overweight. 

The farm bill is a chance to address a pressing issue: the abuse and unhealthy consequences of our current food-stamp program.

Obesity will not be prevented at the school level — where the former first lady tried — but at home. Any reform to the farm bill should prohibit the use of food stamps to buy unhealthy foods. According to a USDA report, among households receiving food stamps, 9 percent of food expenditures are on sweetened beverages, 7 percent on prepared desserts, 3 percent on salty snacks, and 2 percent on candy — about 21 percent total (and about 19 percent for non-food-stamp households). Restrictions on unhealthy food have already been implemented in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC, wherein qualified mothers receive stamps to purchase certain foods high in nutritional value, such as milk and cheese. 

The farm bill is a chance to address a pressing issue: the abuse and unhealthy consequences of our current food-stamp program. If President Trump and Republicans in Congress can stand united on this front, maybe we can see actual reform.


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— Sapna Rampersaud is an editorial intern at National Review and studies government, history, and French at Harvard University.


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