With poverty stuck at a decades-high 15 percent, food stamps have proven one of the best programs still around to help low-income Americans from slipping into deeper poverty. So it’s under attack, of course. Last week, as the House prepared to adjourn, majority leader John Boehner warned that a deal on the farm bill, through which the food stamp program is authorized, was not imminent. Both chambers have passed bills, albeit dramatically different ones. Republican leaders from the House are negotiating with Senate Democratic leaders now, and they have to come up with a compromise solution before the current farm bill expires at the end of this year.
Being poor is expensive. A winter heating bill that comes due before the paycheck arrives can compel a trip to a payday lender who charges 350 percent interest. It takes the entire paycheck to pay off that loan in a week—emptying out the bank account and requiring yet another visit to the lender. A child who is too sick to go to school for a week may need her single father to stay home with her, costing him a quarter of his monthly income. He’s overdue on the rent and the bills, so he’s responsible for late fees as well.
When Congress shut down the government, one of the many programs caught up in the fracas was Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF), the program created by the 1996 welfare-reform law. Spending on the program is mandatory, and normally wouldn’t be a casualty of an appropriations fight like the one waged now. But the law officially expired three years ago. Instead of taking it up again, Congress has simply extended the last reauthorization with each new spending bill. No spending bill, no welfare program.
Last week, House Republicans passed a bill that would cut the food stamp program by about $40 million 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 for the next five years —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 gets it.) There’s very little chance that the bill will be enacted, given the more moderate makeup of the Senate, although it’s likely that some cuts are 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 numbers in the news to see how the program is performing—and why it’s still essential.