The House of Representatives is poised to pass a budget reconciliation measure that would tackle increased spending in the food stamps program (or, as it’s currently known, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program).
It would do this by eliminating “categorical eligibility” in the program, which ignores income and asset limitations in granting food stamps to people receiving cash welfare assistance. It also accelerates the sunset date for a temporary food stamp benefit increase provided by the 2009 stimulus bill.
Since President Obama came to office, spending on food stamps has doubled, from $39 billion in 2008 to close to $80 billion in 2012. But while more people receive food stamps, the amount of spending has outpaced the increase in participation.
To tackle burgeoning costs and growing rolls, Congress should take steps to not only get spending under control but to turn food stamps into a work activation program:
First, the entitlement spending structure should be removed. Under the current funding structure, states receive more money as they actively seek to enroll more people. Automatically increasing spending incentivizes states to increase food stamp participation. Instead, states should receive a fixed amount of money each year that does not go up or down depending on the size of their food stamp rolls (with adjustments made for times of economic downturn, as well as for annual inflation rates). This provision gives a fiscal incentive to move people off the rolls and into the workforce.
A work requirement for all non-elderly, able-bodied recipients is another critical element to reforming the food stamps program. The number of hours of required activity would be based on the amount of the food stamp benefit received.
Other possible reforms for consideration include mandatory drug testing for recipients. Taxpayers should not be asked to pay for food for recipients who are actively spending other sources of income on illegal drugs. Currently under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, states have the option to drug test, but few have chosen to do so. Also, restrictions should be put on the use of EBT cards—for example, not allowing them to be used for soft drinks and junk food. Finally, repealing provisions such as “categorical eligibility,” which automatically enrolls people in food stamps once they apply for another welfare program, should be eliminated.
Since the War on Poverty began in the 1960s, government welfare spending has increased dramatically. Today, the U.S. spends 16 times the amount (adjusting for inflation) on welfare than it did five decades ago—and more than it did back in 1996, when President Clinton vowed to “end welfare as we know it.” Government spending on means-tested cash, food and housing program is now twice the amount needed to push the income of every poor person in the U.S. above the poverty line.
Getting ever-expanding welfare costs under control with common-sense reforms to programs like food stamps—the fastest growing government welfare program—would help tackle the increasing burden on American taxpayers. Additionally, these reforms would help promote self-reliance for those in need, a goal that all welfare programs should aim to achieve.