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The Future of Food Stamps

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“We Accept EBT” says the new large sign outside of a small, local food market near my house. Electronic Benefit Transfer or EBT is the system used by states to issue welfare benefits on a card that looks like a regular credit card. Aside from being convenient and efficient, an EBT card allows users to spend their welfare benefits almost anonymously, since it looks as though they are merely using a credit card.

The most common use of EBT cards is to provide food-stamp benefits. Now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the food-stamp program is a federal program administered by the Food and Nutrition Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture but operated by the states. After beginning as a temporary program from 1939 to 1943 and continuing as a pilot program from 1961 to 1964, the program was made permanent as part of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” reforms, along with other supposed anti-poverty measures such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Head Start.

According to SNAP monthly data, 47,636,085 persons in 23,052,389 households received $76,070,295,282 in food-stamp benefits during fiscal year 2013.

Funding for food stamps is customarily provided in the farm bill. Title IV of the bill covers domestic food and nutrition and commodity distribution programs, of which the main one is food stamps. The last Farm Bill was passed in 2008, but expired at the end of fiscal year 2012. Since then, funding for farm-bill programs has been temporarily extended.

The House and Senate are currently at an impasse over a new farm bill. The Republican-controlled House has passed one bill (H.R.2642) and the Democratic-controlled Senate has passed another (S.954). The main issue is the amount of “cuts” to the food-stamp program. Republicans are seeking nearly $40 billion in “cuts” over the next ten years, while Democrats only want about $4 billion in “cuts.”

The cuts, of course, are not real cuts at all; they are reductions in the rate of increases — thanks to the accounting gimmick of baseline budgeting.

It is a myth that Republicans want to cut food stamps in any meaningful way.

The original Republican food-stamp bill, the Nutrition Reform and Work Opportunity Act of 2013 (H.R.3102), that was incorporated into their version of the farm bill would have authorized SNAP appropriations through fiscal year 2018. It passed the House by a vote of 217-210. Every Democrat voted against the bill.

Yet, as Reasons Ira Stoll pointed out at the time,

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that the House bill would spend $725 billion on food stamps over the years 2014 to 2023. The Department of Agriculture’s web site offers a summary of spending on the program that reports spending totaling $461.7 billion over the years 2003 to 2012, a period that included a dramatic economic downturn.

The Republicans want to increase food stamp spending 57 percent. The Democrats had previously planned to increase it by 65 percent (to $764 billion over 10 years instead of the $725 billion in the Republican bill), so they depict the Republicans as “meanspirited class warriors” seeking “deep cuts.”

But still the myth continues. In a recent interview on an unrelated subject on NPR’s Here & Now, John de Graaf, author of Affluenza: Why Overconsumption Is Killing Us and How to Fight Back, made this observation:

For 30 years in this society, we’ve allowed ourselves to do things which have consistently benefited the top 1 percent or 2 percent while punishing others. We’re cutting food stamps as a society, while we refuse to tax at any higher rate the millionaires in our society.

The Washington Posts “In Play” recently talked to “two members from different sides of the aisle who share a similar experience: Both were on food stamps earlier in their life. But each one has a different idea for the future of the program.”

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) may not agree on ObamaCare, the war in Afghanistan, or the size of the education budget, but there is one thing they do agree on — both are thankful for food stamps. Their brief comments on food stamps show the real difference between liberals and conservatives when it comes to the welfare state — there is no difference.

Representative Lee’s typical meal while on food stamps was tuna noodle casserole that lasted three days. Representative Yoho preferred peanut butter and jelly, or tomato, cheese, and mayonnaise sandwiches. They are also said to have different visions for the future of the food-stamp program.

According to Representative Lee, “My dream for the SNAP program would be to increase the appropriations for SNAP and to increase the amount of funds we do for outreach and for community efforts to inform people of the fact that they’re eligible for it and that they should not be ashamed or should not worry about any stigma associated with it.”

Representative Yoho supports new rules for getting benefits, such as requiring those who can hold a job to have one or to volunteer. Says the congressman, “If we’re going to have safety-net programs, which we are always going to have, in order to maintain them, we’ve got to run them properly and not let them get bloated and take people that are able-bodied that can work but choose not to. I think the majority of Americans would probably be against that.” He adds that at first he was very reluctant to go on food stamps, but “when you’re hungry you’ll do things that you’ll have to do and so we signed up on that. I never felt right using them but I was glad they were there because it is a safety net.”

There is no philosophical difference between liberals and conservatives and Democrats and Republicans when it comes to food stamps. Both groups consider it the proper role of government to provide them. Both groups consider it the duty of taxpayers to pay for them. Their only disagreements are about the minor details of the operation of the program and how to combat the waste, inefficiency, and fraud that are inherent in all federal welfare programs.

But once you argue that the government should provide food to those who “need” it, there is no consistent argument that can be used against the government’s providing housing, medical care, baby formula, school lunch, et cetera to whoever “needs” it.

And once you maintain that it is the proper role of government to provide a safety net, you are forever locked into debating questions about its size, scope, benefits, rules, eligibility, and cost because there can be no right answers to those questions.

There is, of course, a philosophical, constitutional, and moral answer to those questions that only libertarians can be found articulating: Food stamps, like all of the federal government’s welfare programs, are illegitimate, unconstitutional, and immoral.

The future of food stamps for Americans who use them (one in seven) is certain as long as Democratic and Republican welfare statists have the power to help themselves to other Americans’ money.

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