Earlier this summer, the House took an important step in separating the bloated farm bill into an agriculture-only bill and a food stamp bill, which was introduced yesterday. To make a stand-alone food stamp bill a truly worthwhile reform, it should include a mandatory work requirement for all able-bodied adults.
The current bill encourages work among able-bodied recipients but only through an optional program. To encourage self-sufficiency and independence for all, food stamps should be converted into a work activation program.
A new reform should make it mandatory—rather than merely optional, as the House proposal does—for states that receive federal food stamp dollars to implement a work program for able-bodied adult recipients. Similar to the 1996 welfare reform, a new reform should require able-bodied adults to work, prepare for work, or at the very least look for work in exchange for receiving food stamp assistance.
The House’s food stamp proposal does make some positive changes to ensure that the food stamp program is focused on helping those truly in need. It ends loopholes that have made it possible for states to loosen income requirements and bypass asset tests for applicants.
A policy known as “broad-based categorical eligibility” has allowed states to loosen income limits and bypass asset tests for individuals applying for food stamps. This policy has shifted food stamps from a program focused on those truly in need to a bonus payment on top of unemployment benefits. The House proposal ends this problematic loophole.
Another loophole, dubbed “Heat & Eat,” allows states to artificially boost a household’s food stamp benefit amount. Households that receive benefits from the Low-Income Heat and Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) are often able to receive more in food stamp benefits, so a state can mail a household a LIHEAP check for as low as $1 and thus qualify the household for the increased food stamp amount. The House proposal makes it harder for states to implement this loophole.
The food stamps program is badly in need of reform, and policymakers have the opportunity now to make such reforms. Food stamps has remained virtually unchanged since it was institutionalized in the 1970s. Recession or not, the rolls have been growing. Spending on food stamps doubled between fiscal years (FY) 2000 and 2007 and then doubled again to roughly $80 billion by FY 2012. Even in good economic times, work levels among able-bodied food stamp recipients are low.
A strong work requirement is vital to reform. Policymakers should look to the 1996 welfare reform as a model for encouraging work and self-sufficiency.