Five Reasons Food Stamps Work Just Fine

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor

Last week, House Republicans passed a bill that would cut the food stamp program by about $40 billion over the next ten years. They’re drawing on headline numbers—the program serves about 47 million people each year and has the biggest price tag of any program in the farm bill, $80 billion—to drum up support. The aid, technically known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, is still known as food stamps to nearly everyone who receives it. There’s little chance that the bill will be enacted, given the more moderate makeup of the Senate, although it’s likely that some cuts will end up on the president’s desk. (The Senate is cutting $4.4 billion from the program.) Still, food stamps are one of the most robust federal entitlements for the poor we have left, so it’s always going to be a target for cuts. It’s worth looking beyond those bold-face numbers in the news to see how the program is performing—and why it’s still essential.

1. More People Are Benefiting from Food Stamps than Ever

The number of people on the food-stamp program has increased by about 27 million since the recession, an increase that is still smaller than the increase in poverty. The Center on Budget Policy and Priorities crunched the data and found that the number of people who  qualified for food stamps went up from 54 to 64 million. (In contrast, food-stamp participation rates fell in the 1990s, when the economy was good.) Also, a higher percentage of people who qualified are getting food stamps than before, though it’s still true that about a quarter of households that could get food stamps don’t get them, for whatever reason. Those households without food stamps report that they aren’t always able to get enough food to feed their families.

2. Food Stamps Are Good for the Economy—and Cheaper than Farm Subsidies!

Even though spending on food stamps, about $78 billion in 2012, is higher than other farm-bill appropriations—farm subsidies are about $16 billion—the number of people who directly benefit is also larger. If you average out the spending on food stamps for every person who gets them, it’s only $1,700 per person. Spending on farm subsidies only affects about 3 million agricultural jobs, which works out to $5,300 per person. Yet Republicans aren’t decreasing the amount the government spends on farm subsidies. In fact, they are increasing it. (Those subsidies benefit rich farmers and agricultural companies, powerful members of the House agricultural committee's constituency.) Moreover, food stamps subsidize American agriculture in a roundabout way, because most of our food is produced domestically. In fact, analyses show that food stamps pump a lot of money back into the economy—every $1 spent on food stamps generates between $1.60 and $1.80 in economic activity. 

3. Children Are the Biggest Food-Stamp Benefactors

The Food Research Action Center reports that about a quarter of households with children say they can’t get enough food. By and large, adults with children are the most likely to seek out food assistance. About three quarters of food-stamp recipients are households with children living in their households, and 47 percent of individual recipients are children. The average benefit for a family of three is just under $400, which is about $33 per person per week. Not everyone gets the same amount, however. In 2011, about 6.4 million were working adults, and the more they earn, the fewer benefits they get. Which means that, by and large, all that food-stamp money is feeding children whose parents work low-wage jobs.

4. Cutting Food Stamps Won’t Trim the Deficit

Food and agriculture spending, of which food stamps are a part, only make up 5 percent of the mandatory spending in the federal budget—and that spending is largely good for the economy. Cutting the program even by a huge margin won’t make a difference in the government’s checkbook. The cuts will, however, make a huge difference to families. The House-proposed cuts would kick about 1.7 million unemployed, childless adults off the program. Their average income? About $2,500 a year, and for many of them food stamps are their only source of income. Cuts would also prevent some ex-offenders from getting food stamps once they’re out of prison. All the research shows that the more help ex-offenders receive, the less likely they are to end up back where they started. Helping former prisoners readjust to society instead of marginalizing them ultimately costs states less money.

5. Food-Stamp Fraud Is an Imaginary Problem

The computer systems used by social-services agencies are ancient, and caseworkers are often overworked and under-resourced. Over the years, the federal government has tried to give states more flexibility to run the food-stamp program, and states have worked to modernize their systems so they don’t kick people off rolls unnecessarily, or over- and under-pay benefits. In 2002, the federal government started giving bonuses to states in an effort to improve the performance and compliance of their food-stamp programs.  The House shows signs of wanting to chip away at those advances: the current bill would remove the bonuses for states to improve performance. Which is ironic, because one of the errors the incentive money helped reduce was the rate that food stamp recipients were mistakenly overpaid. The federal government is also aggressive about cracking down on food-stamp fraud: only about one cent of every dollar spent goes to trafficking, which happens most often when recipients exchange their benefits for cash. Trafficking is the most common type of “fraud” in the food-stamp program, and it doesn’t cost the federal government any more money. It just means benefits aren’t being used for their intended purpose.

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