My Turn: No good reason to cut food stamp program
Presently at issue before Congress is the fate of the federal food stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP. Both branches of Congress have been addressing food stamps in the context of the farm bill.
On June 20, the House rejected a version of the farm bill that would have resulted in very significant cuts to the food stamp program. The House Agriculture Committee bill which came to the floor would have cut 2 million low-income people off benefits entirely. Working families with children and senior citizens would have taken the major hit. An additional 850,000 households would have had their benefits reduced by $90 a month. The total projected savings in food stamp cuts under the bill would be almost $21 billion over the next decade.
These cuts would follow on the heels of a further food stamp cut. The 2009 Recovery Act had increased household benefits to the tune of $20 to $25 a month or roughly $240 to $300 a year. That increase is scheduled to expire on Nov. 1 unless Congress acts.
As of Jan. 1, 2013, the food stamp program reached 120,000 New Hampshire residents, 9 percent of the state population. Nationally, the food stamp program serves 47,772,000 participants, 15 percent of the total population in the United States. The average monthly food stamp benefit is $246 a month. Food stamps pumped $166 million into the New Hampshire economy in 2012.
How the food stamp program is viewed is a Rorschach test for politics. On the one hand, you have the Reagan-Gingrich-Romney view which sees food stamp recipients as takers, frauders and welfare queens. On the other hand, you have people like former senators George McGovern and Bob Dole who both championed the program and who saw it as a way to feed the needy.
I suppose how you see the food stamp program depends on whether you think hunger is a real problem in America.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that more than 50 million Americans lived in food insecure households in 2011. Food insecurity is defined as the condition of not having regular access to enough nutritious food for a healthy life. Of that 50 million, more than 33 million are adults and more than 16 million are children. The USDA further estimates that about 17 million live in households considered to have very low food security. These are the food stamp recipients with the deepest struggles. These people regularly skip meals or cut the amount eaten below what is minimally needed.
I would argue that food stamps have been the most effective and targeted public benefit ever devised in the United States. The program has played a critical role in lessening hunger and malnutrition. A host of bad consequences can flow from childhood food insecurity including physical, emotional and cognitive impairment.
In the world of public benefits, food stamps serve the widest number of needy people. Welfare no longer plays that role. Far fewer people get it. Food stamps are the big enchilada as far as benefit programs are concerned.
The logic of cutting the program now escapes me. The need is still there. The economy has only marginally improved. Pretending that need does not exist is a form of denial. If the economy does improve, fewer people will need the benefit and fewer people will be on the program. It is worth pointing out the countercyclical nature of food stamps. The program helps the economy since people typically spend their benefits quickly after receipt. They have to – otherwise they will be hungry.
Legislators who favor cutting the food stamp program do not talk about hunger. They try to keep discussion away from the impact on actual human beings. It is about deficit-cutting. You cannot get more abstract than that. How bloodless and how removed!
The food stamp cutters, a wealthy crowd, are oblivious to hunger, a condition that is, no doubt, quite foreign to them. The cutters offer no alternative for feeding the hungry. More likely, they talk about fraud in the program or highlight a recipient somewhere who used food stamps to buy a lobster. The food stamp cutters are big on passing negative moral judgments on poor people.
The food stamp fraud discussion is one that should be welcomed by food stamp proponents. While no program is without some degree of fraud, the food stamp program has been good at minimizing fraud and trafficking. The fact there is some small amount of fraud does not negate the need of the overwhelming majority who depend on the program. I would mention that the food stamp program in New Hampshire has been particularly vigilant about fraud. It has a good record in recovering overpayments not only from those who commit intentional program violations but also from those who commit inadvertent household errors.
Although food stamps was designed to be a nutritional supplement and not the sole basis for a monthly diet, it is the bulwark against poor people going hungry. For tons of people, who for whatever reason are lacking in income, food stamps may be the only source of nourishment.
A bunch of years back, I participated in the now defunct state Food Stamp Advisory Council. Made up of advocates, nutritionists and representatives from the Department of Health and Human Services, we used to discuss the program’s functioning and ideas for improving it. One idea we had back then still resonates: using the Low Cost Food Plan rather than the Thrifty Food Plan for food stamps. The Thrifty Food Plan gets most families only three-quarters or four-fifthsof the way through the month. The Low Cost Food Plan is a 25-30 percent higher allotment than the Thrifty Plan and it is based on a more realistic assessment of actual need. It is more in line with what low- and moderate-income people report they spend on food and it is more likely to provide the nutrition that will get recipients through the month.
I would suggest that food stamp cuts are not like other budget cuts. This is not like cutting a weapon system or even other social services. Before food stamps are cut, legislators should remember 16 million children potentially going hungry. In this, the richest country in the world, that is an entirely preventable situation.
(Jonathan P. Baird of Wilmot is an administrative law judge. His column reflects his own views and not those of his employer, the Social Security Administration.)