Early Wednesday morning, the House Agriculture Committee leadership passed its version of a five-year farm bill to replace the one that expires on September 30, 2012. The bill, which “saves” $35 billion over ten years – $11 billion more than its Senate-passed counterpart – continues a politically tough debate for politicians of varying political and geographical viewpoints. The debate peaked in the Senate several weeks ago, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) offered an amendment to strip 45% of proposed Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP/food stamp) funding for next year. This was followed by a two-day marathon of 73 amendments to the bill, as well as passage through the Senate.
In and around the legislative process has been the politics of public persuasion. For example, on June 13, Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) mocked an effort by his fellow Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) to restore funding cut by the Senate legislation. Sessions argued that the widely-stated benefits of food stamps on economic growth are factually inaccurate, that fraud is rife within SNAP, and that the food stamp program has negative moral consequences for the country. For her part, Gillibrand gave a statement to Huffington Post in response, saying “It is shocking as a mother and a lawmaker when clear facts about the return on investment is ignored, and cutting billions in food assistance for hungry kids is framed as being on the right side of a clear moral issue.”
Rachel Sheffield, a Research Associate at the conservative Heritage Foundation, writes that the food stamp program is indeed flawed, both in scope and the level of fraud. While the Agriculture Department says only $800 million, about one percent, of the funding for food stamps is lost to fraud, Sheffield wrote in December 2011 nearly 3.9% of funding was lost to “improper payments,” totaling $2.5 billion in 2011. Sheffield also commented more recently on an Agriculture Department study showing alleviation of poverty due to SNAP, citing the program’s increased caseload and quadrupled cost since 2000 as “the federal government…saying that federal dependence translates to poverty relief.”
A Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report in April 2012 said spending on food stamps from 2000 to 2011 went from $18 billion to $78 billion. Much of that growth came from 2007 to 2011, when SNAP benefit totals increased from approximately $38 billion to $78 billion. According to CBO, 65% of this latter growth was due to the weak economy, 20% was due to increased assistance in the 2009 stimulus, and 15% is related to “other factors,” including higher food prices. Using CBO’s numbers, approximately $26 billion in SNAP increases since 2007 can be directly attributed to the recession. This $26 billion equals about 43% of the growth since 2000, meaning 57% of growth is attributed to factors not directly associated with the recession.
RJ Caster, a former district case worker for a Maryland Congressman, talked about his experience in conducting oversight on various federal assistance programs for the Congressman, including food stamps. According to Caster, “There really is no way to make sure the programs are being used effectively. Some people really are trying to help themselves, and some people are going to come back again and again because they have mental deficiencies. But there are many times where there have been people who go and get help, and they are definitely taking advantage of the system.”
When asked about specific examples of abuse or inefficiencies, Caster admitted it was difficult to say how many people are abusing the system compared to those using it as it was designed. “Everyone has extenuating circumstances. For me, I think it’s a good use of federal funding if people are using programs as a means to an end, as opposed to people using it as an end. I think this is why there is such a different outlook on the programs between liberals and conservatives – liberals see the programs as an end to helping people, whereas conservatives want people to use the programs to get back on their feet. When I work at a case office, and you have regulars who are trying to get on this program and on that program, that’s hard. You have people who are underemployed (a large portion of the population these days) who don’t qualify for the programs even though they definitely could use assistance. That was the most heart-wrenching thing for me, seeing people who are over the threshold to receive help but who were having incredibly tough times in their lives and really needed help.”
Sheffield says she is not denying that people need help. In an e-mailed comment, she stated “Food stamp enrollment is certainly up due to the recession. However, spending and participation rates were climbing prior to the recession, and the increase in spending has exceeded the growth in participation rates. Part of the increase can be attributed to policies and loopholes that make it easier for people to get on food stamps and remain there.”
Sheffield also had policy advice for the future. “In order to get spending under control, program spending should be rolled back to pre-recession levels once the economy recovers. Also, like the successful welfare reforms of 1996 that inserted work requirements into the largest cash assistance welfare program, work requirements should be added to the food stamps program. All able-bodied adult recipients should be required to work, prepare for work, or look for work. These policies will help control the massive spending increases and help recipients move from government dependence to self-reliance.”
According to an e-mail from a veteran activist for the homeless in New Hampshire, SNAP is indeed flawed, but it also provides an undeniable benefit to society. “I feel that the effectiveness of the food stamp problem is multi-faceted. Many individuals who are on the food stamp program don’t have stable income, and thus the SNAP program creates a standard of living that is hard to break away from. Some individuals will work 25-30 hours a week and sometimes they work 10 due to the constantly shifting nature of their professions. Much like the stock market, low wage earners’ income seems to be quite volatile and thus the individual has a hard time creating the stability needed to leave the food stamp program.”
The activist also said that the food stamp program does not provide the sort of income needed for healthy food options. “The second major issue is the inability to educate the SNAP participant on healthy food choices and the inability for the participant to acquire healthy food options. Many times healthy food options are clearly too expensive or not sustainable on a food stamp budget. Many reports and news articles have discussed the difficulties of purchasing food items on the $200.00/month maximum that is allotted to NH residents. While that might seem like a lot to a college student, a full-grown male who is suppose to maintain a balance of 2200 calories a day (especially individuals who work manual labor) is not going to receive the nutritional sustenance needed to stay healthy. I’m not saying that SNAP is useless; however positive changes to the long-term sustainability could really help individuals who truly want to leave the SNAP program forever.”
As the House examines both its own legislation for the farm bill and the Senate-passed version, the debate will no doubt continue. However, this ongoing discussion has highlighted several important policy and political questions:
First, many Democrats have said the economy is doing fine. President Obama famously gave mixed signals on this in recent weeks. This flies directly in the face of concern by congressional Democrats that food stamp funding should be fully maintained to help the poor in what they have said is a weakened economy, and what Vice President Biden just recently said is “a Depression for millions and millions of Americans.”
Second, Many supporters of social assistance for the poor claim conservatives ignore welfare for wealthier individuals while they bash the poor. For example, in February 2012, former Plymouth State University Professor Leo Sandy claimed the following: “The majority of people receiving welfare do not cheat unlike those who receive corporate welfare who can all be considered cheats because their welfare is not need-based. It is estimated that between 8 out of 10 welfare dollars go to the rich…According to [OMB Watch], ‘Government spending for corporate welfare programs far exceeds government spending for social programs. For example, “Total federal spending on a safety net for the poor costs the average taxpayer about $400 a year, while spending on corporate welfare programs costs the same taxpayer about $1400 a year (source: CBO figures).”
However, corporate welfare isn’t limited to energy subsidies and tax loopholes; according to the Santa Fe Reporter, it is also inherent in the food stamp program, including by allowing JPMorgan Chase and various governments across the country to sign contracts for food stamp beneficiaries – and providing JPMorgan Chase with millions in profits for facilitating grocery purchases.
Finally, the USDA has launched an ad citing the benefits of the SNAP program for citizens of all kinds, including the elderly. This leads back to Sheffield’s point – is the goal of food stamps to help people get back on their financial feet, or to further an end goal of making more people dependent on the federal government? If it’s the former, how do supporters of SNAP who genuinely want to help only the poor and provide all others the ability to get back on their feet recommend shrinking the size of the food stamp program as the economy continues to recover?