The farm bill is currently making its way through the Senate amidst heated debate. But don’t let the title fool you. Nearly 80 percent—of the bill’s spending goes toward the nation’s fastest growing welfare program: food stamps.
Since 2000, the cost of food stamps (now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) has nearly quadrupled, with much of that growth taking place over the last four years. But as large as the program is, it’s only part of a federal welfare system consisting of roughly 70 programs costing taxpayers nearly $1 trillion annually.
Earlier this month, Senators Rand Paul (R–KY) and Jim Inhofe (R–OK) introduced an amendment to the farm bill (subsequently voted down) to scale back the skyrocketing costs of food stamps—costs that have outpaced the increase in participation rates. Senator Jeff Sessions (R–AL) introduced another amendment (also voted down) that would eliminate loopholes that allow states to boost their food stamp roles.
Stemming the rising cost of the food stamps program and eliminating loopholes are both crucial steps in restoring fiscal sanity to the program. But such reforms must be coupled with those that promote personal responsibility through work.
“Food stamps is an old and fossilized program,” say The Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector and Katherine Bradley in a forthcoming paper. “Aside from enormous increases in cost, food stamps has remained basically unchanged since its creation in the 1960s.… It remains a program that discourages work, rewards idleness, and promotes long-term dependence.”
The best course of action to reduce spending, explain Rector and Bradley, would be to roll back food stamp spending to pre-recession levels once the economy recovers, or by 2013. “In subsequent years, the maximum allocation to states should grow no faster than inflation and population growth, although temporary increases above that maximum could be permitted in periods of high unemployment,” they add.
Additionally, instead of recruiting participants, as current policies encourage, “there should be an effort to return food stamp caseloads to normal, pre-recession levels or to the even lower levels that occurred during the Clinton presidency.”
When the program began in the 1960s, roughly one in 20 Americans participated. Today, that number is about one in seven.
Part of the recent growth in program participation is due to policies that make it easier for individuals to enroll in the program and remain on the rolls. “Application loopholes that permit food stamp recipients to bypass income and asset tests,” note Rector and Bradley, contribute to this problem and should be eliminated.
Perhaps most critical to reform is restructuring food stamps to a program that encourages self-reliance through work. Going forward, all able-bodied recipients should be required “to work, prepare for work, or at least look for a job as a condition of receiving aid.”
Additionally, reforms that require participants to receive a drug test prior to receiving aid are an important step in promoting greater personal responsibility among recipients.
The welfare reforms of 1996, which inserted work requirements into the largest cash assistance welfare program, succeeded in helping individuals move from welfare to work. As a result, millions of Americans left welfare for jobs, and the child poverty rate dropped substantially. The food stamps program can similarly be transformed into one that helps individuals transition back to self-reliance.