SNAP and Anti-Poverty Policy More Broadly

Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation argues that it is important to view the expansion of the food stamp program in the broader context of anti-poverty policy. By focusing on one program at a time, policymakers wind up neglecting the complicated ways various programs interact with each other. Edward Glaeser has called for the consolidation of anti-poverty spending to limit adverse incentives:

Well-designed programs, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, do as much as possible to limit these negative incentives and even create some positive effects. That credit initially increases with earnings, creating an incentive to go to work; benefits taper off slowly, which limits the tendency to work too little. The design is smart, and the program seems to have encouraged employment substantially. The 1996 welfare reform that produced Temporary Aid to Needy Families was also aimed at creating better incentives for employment.

By contrast, food stamps and Medicaid (USBOMDCA) are more like old- style welfare systems that create strong incentives to earn less. To get food stamps, you typically need to have less than $2,000 in assets, so recipients are pushed to save nothing. Although food stamps typically require recipients to be employed, every extra dollar of “net income” reduces the benefit by 30 cents. Housing vouchers require recipients to earn less than 50 percent of median income in their area, and the voucher amount also decreases by 30 cents as income increases by a dollar.

A family that gets both food stamps and a housing voucher loses more than 50 percent of each extra dollar earned in the form of reduced benefits. Medicaid (USBOMDCA) benefits, likewise, disappear with significant income or assets.

In the forthcoming National Review, Oren Cass calls for a larger rethink of anti-poverty policy. His central proposal is that while the non-working poor should continue to rely primarily on in-kind transfers, the working poor ought to be transitioned away from in-kind transfers to an expanded EITC. The goal is to make work more attractive than non-work without unduly harming the interests of those who can’t or won’t work in the formal sector. Cash transfers are more attractive than in-kind transfers because they allow for greater autonomy. If we accept Rector’s argument that anti-poverty policy ought to built around “a reciprocal obligation between taxpayers and recipients,” it makes sense that we’d want to treat those who work more generously (along some dimension) than those who do not. One way to be more generous is to actually give the working poor more generous benefits than the non-working poor, though that of course is very expensive; another is to attach fewer strings to the benefits received by the working poor, which might prove just as strong an incentive. As Glaeser observed last year, however, the ratio of federal spending on in-kind assistance (Medicaid, SNAP, and tenant- and project-based rental assistance) was 5.6x spending on cash aid (TANF, EITC). 

Elsewhere, Michael Todd of Pacific Standard offers a left-liberal defense of the SNAP program and its expansion in the post-crisis era, drawing on research from Robert A. Moffitt of Johns Hopkins University. He quotes Moffitt as follows:

As for demographic groups served, the Medicaid, TANF, housing, and EITC programs primarily benefit families with children and not childless individuals or families, and Medicaid and TANF primarily benefit single-mother families. The SSI program provides benefits to only the elderly and disabled. SNAP is the only program with near-universal demographic eligibility. Aside from SNAP, therefore, one should not expect all demographic groups to benefit equally from an expansion of the safety net.

And then he adds:

Surprisingly, it wasn’t those damned long-term poor people that the current breed of SNAP reformers yammer on about who received the most benefit from the suite of government aid. Often, Moffitt reveals, it was the people in “shallow poverty,” presumably the so-called working poor and the folks it’s cool to help out, who saw as much assistance as those in deep poverty. While SNAP and unemployment did help those hurting the worst, the overall safety net, he writes, isn’t particularly progressive.

I can’t really speak to who the “current breed of SNAP reformers yammer on about” — my sense is that most critics of SNAP expansion have focused on the 15 million Americans living above the food-stamp eligibility threshold established by Congress currently receiving food stamps (see David J. Armor and Sonia Sousa) and the downsides of “categorical eligibility” (see Ramesh Ponnuru’s column on the subject). But note that Cass’s approach would actually be more generous to the “so-called working poor and the folks it’s cool to help out” (an intriguingly derisive take on the idea that less-skilled, low-wage workers merit consideration) than the SNAP expansion, as it would attach fewer strings to aid. It’s not at all clear to me that Cass’s vision for reforming anti-poverty policy will take hold among conservatives, but it should, and I look forward to discussing it further once his article is released.

On a related note, I was very impressed by Eli Saslow’s profile of Rep. Steve Southerland, a Florida Republican who has been leading the GOP effort to reform the SNAP program. Essentially, Southerland’s proposal allows states to impose work requirements on non-elderly, able-bodied SNAP recipients provided they don’t have children over the age of 1. I don’t actually know how well Southerland’s proposal would work in practice, as I suspect the effective supervision of SNAP recipients would prove labor-intensive and expensive. But Saslow’s profile gives Southerland a respectful hearing, and it illustrates the obstacles facing members of Congress genuinely interested in reforming the way government works. I’ve often been baffled as to why more lawmakers don’t take it upon themselves to master some policy domain and to press for reform, as it seems like a natural way to do good and to raise one’s profile. Southerland’s experience is revealing — I should say, however, that it’s not entirely discouraging, as Southerland’s efforts really have prompted a more thoughtful conversation on the right about SNAP, and that’s not nothing.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute Policy Fellow. He is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and National Affairs, a member of the ...

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