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.

Comments

WWJD?

I think the Jesus who threw the money-changers out of the Temple might commit a wee bit of havoc in the offices of people who quote Thessalonians out of context.

-dlj.

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Which Jesus? The one recorded in the Christian Bible or the one that the right wing worships?

The former said, "As you do to the least of these, my brethren, so you do it to me."

The latter said, "Let them eat cake."

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1. Your quote: “Food Stamps Are Good for the Economy”was not backed up by any facts. I doubt that it could be. If it were so good for the economy, why not eliminate check-outs at the grocery market, and just centrally fund all food distribution? Of course it is bad for the economy, that is why it is a safety net – not standard operating procedures. Any program that disincentivizes work cannot be good for the economy.

2. Your quote: “Food-Stamp Fraud Is an Imaginary Problem” is beyond comical when one takes into account your further statements: “It just means benefits aren’t being used for their intended purpose.” Hint: taking things under false pretenses and not using them for their intended purpose is the DEFINITION of fraud! :-)

Actually it IS backed up by facts. The CBO did a study and they found that food stamps had the most bang for the buck in the economy of any program that exists, much, much more than tax cuts. And to claim that food stamps disincentivizes work is so foolish that it doesn't deserve a response. Getting $33 a week to eat on disincentivizes work??? Try it some time. The main reason, as the article refers to, is that almost half the people on food stamps are kids, but also a large percent of the rest are the elderly who are trying to live on SS. Then with three unemployed for every job, it takes some sort of gall to claim that the two who lose out are lazy.

And I notice that you missed the part about less than 1% of the money being passed out in food stamps is fraudulently used. That qualifies as imaginary.

Far from disincentivising work, food stamps actually do the opposite--they enable people stuck in low-paying and part-time work to keep working. Apart from helping people afford to feed their families they are a subsidy to the employer. I have actually worked for businesses where several of my fellow workers were receiving food stamps because their wages were so low. Many were single women with one or two children. Many were going to community college to improve their skills and knowledge in hope of better-paying jobs and working full or part-time. I know this because they waited on me or served my food. I have also listened to the employers of these women complain mightily about lazy people who won't work drawing aid and resenting the fact that the state forces them to pay a minimum wage. Most of my familiarity with this comes from working several years in supermarkets, and believe me, it was a real eye-opener.

To Tommy: 1. food stamps are better for the economy than mass starvation (or the theft and shoplifting that would undoubtedly result from desperation: read Les Miserables for a clue), and they do not disincentivize work. That is the right wing myth that assumes that ALL OR MOST POOR people, when given extra money, will stop working, while curiously, ALL OR MOST RICH people, when given extra money, invest it to create jobs; both halves of the myth have been shown by history not to be true.
2. There is fraud in EVERY relief program, but the rate is very low. Fox managed to find ONE to showcase as if he were representative of everyone on food stamps. In fact, one of the top right wing senators TOOK FOOD STAMPS FOR A YEAR, and still believes that everyone ELSE who ever had to take them is lazy and a fraud. Fraud has been reduced to the point that the cost of preventing another dollar of fraud is more than a dollar in administrative costs.

Additional point on point 2 in the article: wealthy "farmers" (meaning owners of large amounts of acreage that "could" be farmed) receiving millions in farm subsidies not only include the CONSTITUENTS of membes of the Ag Committee, they include one of the members HIMSELF, who was in effect voting for his OWN windfall of taxpayer money, and did NOT recuse himself, or even ADMIT that this was the case.

I would like to thank you for your nicely written post.
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Hey Tommy...please explain how the meager benefits one gets from food stamps promotes a lack of work. Absolutely NOONE is getting rich on food stamps. Also, since you brought up fraud, how about explaining why handing out subsidies to rich farmers under the guise of "need" isn't fraud. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!

If you are really asking “how the meager benefits one gets from food stamps promotes lack of work?” read on. If that is a talking point read no further. We wildly agree that “Absolutely NOONE is getting rich on food stamps.” And that is the shame of it – they are settling. Many years ago one of the morning shows interviewed the president of a major Japanese auto manufacturer. They asked him why Japan at the time had a 2% unemployment rate and the U.S. was at about 8%. His answer: “In Japan we do not encourage people not to work; after a couple of weeks they get hungry.” The thought process remains the same. These meager benefits keep people from being “hungry.” Hungry to find that better job, hungry to move to a better place, hungry to get rich. The “meager benefits” are an obstacle to the good life you (I suspect) and I want for everyone.

If I advocated ANY subsidies, I humbly apologize. Not sure where you could have gotten that impression, but together we can eradicate it. Subsidies to banks, farmers, well connected energy companies, etc. – all BAD!

Food stamp fraud by recipients is non-existent because of the way the program actually works, because there would simply "be nothing in it for me" to attempt it, and because the penalties for fraud are very severe. To learn how and why the program works, and how/why it is great for the economy (and the nation's ability to remain competitive in the modern world), you can find more information via the us.gov website. The persistent "problem" with the food stamp program is precisely that it has worked so well, while Republicans want to end it (redistributing that money upward instead).

Tommy, quoting a Japanese business man who was dead wrong does not validate the point. Note that these same voices of wisdom threw Japan's economy into a tailspin, deeply damaging the country. When there aren't enough jobs, people go hungry. Going hungry doesn't create jobs. When people don't have the means to get a job, they go hungry. Millions of our low-wage workers are a single job loss from losing everything, with no way back up (remember, not everyone has people they can fall back on, to support them during a rough time). How do you get a job without a home address, phone, bus fare? US corporations have shipped out the very jobs that the "masses" relied on to make a living -- primarily, our manufacturing jobs. Reagan's deregulation frenzy (in short, taking all the rules off of the greediest) had the inevitable results, deeply harming the US economy. Many without health care for years have become unemployable. All of these (and other) factors work together to collectively pull the nation deeper into hopeless poverty. When people have no way to work their way back up, we see the steady deterioration of the nation. At the most basic level -- Hunger takes a heavy toll on health, ensures failure for school children, leaves unemployed workers unemployable, and all of this impacts the nation as a whole. As much as the greedy hate the very word, no nation can function unless we do things collectively, for the common good. Without collective action, societies collapse. The US reached its height of prosperity AND productivity from WWll until the 1980s, precisely because of the social safety net. Our history simply stands as proof of this -- and of the fact that as we began incrementally ending the social safety net, the US economy has taken a nosedive.

In a nutshell, hungry people perform poorly on their jobs.

Do I understand you right Tommy ? Your saying that like today, the millions who went hungry and homeless during the great depression where just to lazy to go out and get a job ? Is that the way your mind works ?

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