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The Food-Stamp Juggernaut

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The number of Americans receiving food stamps is at an all-time high — and still climbing. One in seven Americans is now on food stamps.

Although the food-stamp program has been officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) since 2008, because recipients received $1, $5, and $10 paper coupons (stamps) redeemable for food for so many years, the name, like the program, refuses to go away.

SNAP is a federal program administered by the Food and Nutrition Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, although it is operated by the states. It began as a temporary program from 1939 to 1943. A later pilot program was operated from 1961 to 1964. The program was then made permanent as part of President Johnson’s “Great Society” reforms, along with other supposed antipoverty measures like Medicare, Medicaid, and Head Start.

According to SNAP monthly data, there are now almost 48 million Americans in over 23 million households receiving an average monthly benefit of $133.29 per person or $275.74 per household. For fiscal year 2012, the federal government paid out over $74.6 billion in food-stamp benefits, plus administrative costs.

These numbers are up substantially since 2007, when about 26 million people received food-stamp benefits at a cost of about $35 billion. But the increased cost is not just due to the increase in participants resulting from the bad economy. Some of the increased cost is because the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (the “stimulus package”) increased the maximum SNAP benefit until November 2013.

Although Republicans have labeled Barack Obama the “food-stamp president,” during the Bush presidency, the number of Americans on food stamps almost doubled from 17 million in fiscal year 2001 to 33 million in fiscal year 2009. Obviously, if they had the political will to do so, Republicans in Congress could have drastically scaled back or completely eliminated the program at any time during the four-year period when they controlled the House, the Senate, and the presidency.

SNAP benefits are an entitlement; anyone who qualifies under the program’s rules can receive benefits. Gross monthly income must generally be at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty line. Net monthly income must generally be less than or equal to the poverty line. (The federal poverty line for fiscal year 2013 is $23,550 a year for a family of four.) Government payments from programs like Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the Earned Income Credit (EIC), and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) are not counted when determining income. The maximum monthly benefit for a family of four is $668.

“SNAP is doing what it’s supposed to do,” writes Chad Stone in his Economic Intelligence opinion column for U.S. News & World Report, titled “The Facts about Food Stamps Conservatives Don’t Want You to Hear.” The food-stamp program is not “undermining the work ethic and creating a class of people dependent on government programs.” It is not “rife with waste, fraud, and abuse.” In fact, he says, SNAP has

  • “A strong record of efficiency”
  • “One of the most rigorous quality control systems of any public benefit program”
  • “Error rates (benefit overpayments and underpayments) … at an all-time low”
  • “Honest mistakes … [that] account for an overwhelming majority of overpayments”

Stone further maintains that more than 90 percent of benefit dollars spent “go to assist people who are elderly, seriously disabled or members of working households — not to able-bodied, working-age Americans who choose not to work.” And besides, the “Congressional Budget Office projects that SNAP spending will grow more slowly than the economy in coming years.”

From a libertarian perspective, the fundamental problem with food stamps is threefold. It’s not that the program fosters dependency on the government, buys votes for politicians at election time, and shifts responsibility from individuals, families, and charitable organizations to “society,” the public, and the government. The problem is that the food-stamp program is simply unconstitutional, illegitimate, and immoral.

The Constitution nowhere authorizes the federal government to have anything to do with food, period. It is not the proper role of government to feed the hungry, help families purchase food, or make sure children have breakfast or don’t go to bed hungry. Redistributing wealth from one American to another — even if it takes the form of paper stamps or an EBT card, and even if the recipient is hungry — is immoral.

And the same goes for other federal food programs: the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, the Summer Food Service Program, the Special Milk Program, and the Women, Infants, and Children program.

Can the food-stamp juggernaut be stopped? Can a federal program that has been around for so long and that provides benefits to so many people ever go away?

One thing is for sure: the food-stamp program will not be stopped by Republicans or conservatives.

House budget chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), in an interview earlier this year on Meet the Press, said that if Republican “reforms” on food stamps had gone through, “they would have grown by 260 percent over the last decade instead of 270 percent.”

Both the Senate and the House recently passed farm bills. Since 1970, funding for food stamps has been included in the farm bills so as to garner bipartisan support and ensure the bills’ passage.

The Senate farm bill (S.954), passed with the help of 18 Republicans, includes $760 billion in funding for food stamps and nutrition programs over the next ten years. Before the bill passed, Senator John Thune (R-SD) introduced legislation (S.762) that he said would save $30 billion over 10 years from SNAP “by eliminating loopholes, waste, fraud, and abuse, while ensuring those who meet the current income and asset eligibility requirements continue to receive the benefits they need.”

The House farm bill (H.R.2642), opposed by only 12 Republicans, was a stripped-down version that for the first time removed food-stamp funding from the bill. This doesn’t mean that House Republicans want to eliminate the food-stamp program. It just means they wanted to pass a farm bill more than they wanted to continue arguing about the small cuts that some Republicans wanted to make to SNAP funding, which caused the last House attempt to pass a farm bill (H.R.1947) to fail.

In response to the article in US News & World Report, a writer for the Heritage Foundation, a beltway conservative think tank now headed by former Republican senator Jim Demint, penned “The Facts about Food Stamps Everyone Should Hear.” None of the facts presented have anything to do with the food-stamp program being unconstitutional, illegitimate, or immoral. The author provides a link to a 2012 Heritage proposal titled “Reforming the Food Stamp Program.” There the authors recommend that Congress

1. “Return food stamp spending to pre-recession levels and cap future spending.”

2. “Transfer control over food stamps from the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).”

3. “Eliminate application loopholes that permit food stamp recipients to bypass income and asset tests.”

4. “Reduce fraud.”

5. “Prohibit food stamp payments to illegal immigrant families.”

6. “Convert food stamps into a work activation program.”

7. “Require drug testing of food stamp recipients.”

That is, they recommend the usual conservative proposals to reform or revamp unconstitutional, illegitimate, and immoral income-transfer government programs. Conservative criticisms of the food-stamp program are always limited to its growth, benefits, work requirements, eligibility rules, waste, inefficiency, and fraud — never to its constitutionality, legitimacy, or morality.

The food-stamp juggernaut will never be stopped until people and politicians stop looking to the government to solve problems. Not only should the food-stamp program be abolished, all the bad government policies that have caused or contributed to the current recession and swelled the food-stamp rolls should be eliminated as well.

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