The Magazine

It’s Not Really a Farm Bill

It’s a food stamp behemoth.

Oct 1, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 03 • By KATE HAVARD
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The Department of Agriculture ran a series of soap operas on Spanish-language radio to get the word about SNAP out to Hispanics. In one such novela, a woman is mocked for saying, “I don’t need anyone’s help. My husband makes enough to take care of us.” Eventually, she sees the error of her ways and signs up for food stamps. Ridiculed by Republicans, the ads were eventually pulled.

But since 2004, USDA has partnered with the Mexican government to increase SNAP enrollment among “Mexican nationals, migrant workers, and non-citizen immigrants” in the United States. Mexican consulates in this country even distribute information about food stamps.

Although adult illegal immigrants do not qualify for SNAP, it’s likely that many are reaping the benefits of lax oversight. Some states do not require a Social Security number to receive benefits, and illegal immigrants can apply for SNAP on behalf of any lawful resident in their household.

With standards like this, it’s easy to see how the program can be abused. Last summer, the Michigan Department of Human Services discovered that 30,000 college students, many of them middle class, were enrolled in the state’s food stamp debit card system. Students received up to $200 a month, costing the state $75 million a year. While the
state quickly tightened its rules, such instances of massive fraud have critics clamoring.

An amendment to the 2012 farm bill proposed by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) would have reformed the system by block granting SNAP funds to the states. “This puts the burden on them to really insure that the money is only going to the truly needy,” Sessions said.


But Paul’s amendment failed in the Democrat-controlled Senate. Democrats also rejected amendments to end “categorical eligibility,” which allows some individuals whose assets exceed the usual limit to receive benefits. They also rejected amendments to end state bonuses for increasing enrollment and to close one infamous loophole.

Anyone who receives money from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) automatically qualifies for food stamps. Since the qualifications for LIHEAP are looser than those for SNAP, some states sneak people onto food stamps by enrolling them for token LIHEAP assistance (often less than a dollar a month). Fifteen states are now doing this, according to the Senate Budget Committee.

Democrats boast that the farm bill as passed by the Senate would trim $4.5 billion from SNAP’s $800 billion over 10 years. They are less eager to advertise that  the savings come from raising the minimum LIHEAP check to $10 a month. This narrows, but does not close, the loophole.

Even this paltry adjustment was too much for Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who accused Republicans and supportive Democrats of intolerable cruelty, saying, “As a mother and a lawmaker, watching a child go hungry is something I just will not stand for.”

Sessions points out that closing the loophole “wouldn’t have eliminated benefits for anyone who actually qualified” for subsidized home energy. But he says this kind of talk is intended “to deter good-government conservatives from making any kind of change.”

The 2012 farm bill does include one reform, however: People who win the lottery will no longer be eligible for food stamps—even if they are unemployed and thus have no income. At last, something everyone can agree on. 

Kate Havard is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 15 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers