The federal government paid more than $74.6 billion last year to provide 46.6 millions Americans with food stamps. This is an astonishing increase, even for this era of rapidly rising federal spending. Four years earlier the comparable figures were $34.6 billion in benefits for 28.2 million recipients.
Thus the impetus behind majority leader Eric Cantor’s (R-Va.) effort to reform food stamps (aka the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) in the House this fall. Food stamps have been part of the farm bill for almost an entire half-century. But House Republicans stripped the food stamp program out when they passed the farm bill in July, hoping to increase the chances of reform.
While Cantor continues to work on the specifics, the new proposal is expected to include $40 billion in savings over the next ten years, which is double the amount of savings the House originally proposed, according to Cantor’s office. Many in the media—and elsewhere in left field—have rushed to condemn Cantor’s efforts. The New York Times labeled Cantor’s methods “brutal” and “diabolical,” while Politico dubbed the effort “Cantor’s summer food stamp assault.” House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in June claimed Republicans are “taking food out of the mouths of babies.” (Note, however, that were Cantor to succeed, benefits would still be higher than they were when Obama took office.)
Cantor spokeswoman Megan Whittemore says conservative reforms have broad support. Namely, able-bodied adults who are not responsible for any dependents would have to fulfill certain work requirements—including paid employment or participation in workfare, public service, volunteer work, or a qualifying state training program—in order to receive SNAP benefits.
“By encouraging states to engage applicants in activities like actual employment, job training, or workfare we can help those in the program build the skills and gain the experience they need to become self-sufficient in the future,” Whittemore says.
Alabama senator Jeff Sessions sought to implement similar reforms in the Senate, but has faced a steep uphill battle. In June, Sessions offered four amendments for the Senate’s version of the farm bill. Only two were even voted on. One would have eliminated the USDA’s decade-old practice of rewarding states that increase food stamp enrollment; the other sought to stop states from making food stamp recipients automatically eligible for other welfare programs. Both amendments failed.
It’s not just the economic hard times of the last four years that have caused SNAP participation to skyrocket. The USDA has long encouraged and rewarded its employees for increasing dependency on Uncle Sam. For example, a social services office in North Carolina received a SNAP Hunger Champions Gold Award in 2011 for using an outreach worker who understood how to “counteract” the locals’ “mountain pride,” or desire to remain self-reliant. The USDA has also extended food stamp benefits to illegal immigrants. A Spanish-language flyer promoting SNAP benefits provided to the Mexican Embassy by the USDA reads, “You need not divulge information regarding your immigration status in seeking this benefit for your children,” according to documents obtained by Judicial Watch in April.
A spokesperson from Senator Sessions’s office says, “The left tries to paint it as this picture of . . . ‘we have to have the program exactly as it is right now.’ It’s a false choice. The real answer is that you can make intelligent reforms that would still leave you spending undoubtedly quite a bit of money on these programs, but lead to many many more people successfully caring for themselves and their families.”
Aggressive outreach by USDA to enroll as many people as possible in the food stamp program has effects beyond the scope of just that program. By enrolling in SNAP, Americans living below the poverty line become automatically eligible for other welfare programs as well. The Wall Street Journal writes that, “So-called “categorical eligibility” allows states to cross-enroll people in different welfare programs automatically. So if you qualify for a home heating subsidy, the government also lends a hand with buying food, which is one of life’s most basic individual responsibilities.” Therefore a food stamp recipient may also be eligible to benefit from cash assistance via the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, rent assistance, Medicaid, and different tax credits or benefits.
Goaded by their government, Americans have shown an unbridled appetite for food stamps. As the House returns next week, we’ll soon find out if there is a countervailing appetite for reform.