The Food-Stamp Bill

I completely agree with my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Henry Olsen that if Republicans want to reduce spending on food programs they should focus on cutting (out entirely) our utterly obscene farm subsidy programs before they ever turn to cutting food stamps. 

That said, though, the reaction to the food-stamp bill the House passed yesterday would benefit from a little perspective. Food-stamp spending has grown by about 245 percent over the past decade (because the recession and weak recovery have increased the number of beneficiaries, because Congress has increased the per-person benefit, and because eligibility rules have been broadened and simplified). CBO projects that, under current law, that spending would decline by about 12 percent over the next decade. The Senate passed a bill in May that would have it instead decline by about 13 percent over the next decade. The House passed a bill yesterday that instead would have it decline by about 16 percent over the next decade. (All this assumes, of course, that CBO’s projections about a stronger economy over the next decade are roughly accurate; the food-stamp program is a formula program, if the economy turns south, spending would not decline under any of these scenarios.) Here’s the year-by-year difference between the House and Senate bills (I didn’t include CBO’s baseline, which projects what would happen if no bill passed, because it’s basically indistinguishable from the Senate bill):

The difference is largely a function of two provisions in the House bill that require states to more closely conform to the formal boundaries of food-stamp eligibility in federal law. One (which accounts for about 48 percent of the spending cuts in the bill) would limit the ability of states to exempt childless adults from the program’s work requirements and time limits, and the other (responsible for about 29 percent of the cuts) would limit the ability of states to provide food-stamp benefits to people who haven’t actually been found eligible for the program but are eligible for other anti-poverty benefits. 

Once you put aside the ridiculously hysterical reaction of Democrats to the House bill (Harry Reid said “The Senate will never pass such hateful, punitive legislation”) and see how close the two bills are in practice, the path forward in conference is not hard to see. The key problem with the House bill (if you accept, as Senate Democrats already have, that a reduction in spending of roughly this magnitude is appropriate) is evident in that chart above: the reduction from current levels and from the baseline is too heavily concentrated in the early years. As a general rule, spending reductions (let alone reductions in anti-poverty spending) should not be too heavily concentrated in one or two years, especially at this point as our economy is still struggling to grow. The 10-year reduction should be spread out more evenly. Now, it’s worth noting that CBO believes it will be concentrated this way in part because the agency has optimistic expectations for economic growth in 2015 and 2016 (they expect 4 percent growth in both years) which naturally lead them to think food-stamp spending would decline. But they also project the bill’s effects this way because the provision that limits work waivers for childless adults takes effect rather abruptly. That would be easy to change, and the difference in spending between the two bills would be easy to bridge in conference—that is, if Congress ever actually did that sort of thing anymore. 

Maybe they should try, right after they slash farm subsidies and other welfare programs for the wealthy. 

Yuval Levin — Yuval Levin is the editor of National Affairs, a quarterly journal of essays on domestic policy and politics. He is also the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy ...

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