Then there's the commentariat. The Wall Street Journal editorial page has declared that food stamps are becoming "the next middle-class entitlement." Fox Business says the same.
There is no question that the food stamp program is expensive and growing. Enrollment in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), as it's officially called, increased 70 percent between 2007 and 2011. Annual spending more than doubled to an all-time-high of $78 billion. It's now the second largest welfare program behind Medicaid, which cost the federal government about $275 billion last year.
But here are a few facts to keep in mind. According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office
, the food stamp program's growth "has been driven primarily by the weak economy." About 65 percent of the increased spending was the result of people simply getting poorer. Another 20 percent was due to the stimulus act, which boosted the maximum benefit at a time when the recession was absolutely grinding up vulnerable families. As the CBO notes, there have been no -- I repeat no -- significant legislative changes to who is eligible since Obama took office.
Meanwhile, the average household receiving food stamps has an income of $731 dollars, including other welfare payments. Around 85 percent of recipients are below the poverty line, which amounts to a measly $18,500 a year for a family of three. The vast majority are elderly, disabled, or have children. Among single, young, and healthy recipients, the average income is $268 a month.
We're also not even handing out benefits to everyone we could be. By 2009, only 72 percent of those eligible were enrolled. Despite an investigation by Scripps Howard that uncovered some scattered instances
of fraud, the U.S. Department of Agriculture believes abuse of the program is at an all-time low. Ninety-eight percent
of food stamp payments went to houses which should have been eligible, and overpayment rates are miniscule.
FOOD AS STIMULUS
The Republicans have argued that there are hidden ways people could be cheating the system. People enrolled in other welfare programs can automatically receive food stamps, no matter what their savings are. Technically, you could own a $1 million house and be on the government's dole.
These are the sorts of specters people raise if they are philosophically opposed to government safety net programs, no matter how well run they might be. States enroll families automatically because it cuts down on administrative costs, which has helped make the food stamp program extremely efficient. Just because some people theoretically could be scamming the system doesn't mean they are in any meaningful numbers. And paranoia isn't a reason to start pulling food out of people's mouths.
If I wanted to impugn the GOP's motives, I might say that they were trying to snuff out an incredibly successful stimulus program. Because food stamps go to families literally living hand to mouth, they're quickly cycled back into the economy. Moody's Analytics has suggested that every dollar spent on the program generates $1.72 in economic activity.
But I don't think that's necessary. The GOP has always been opposed to lower-class welfare in principle (middle-class welfare, well that's a different story). It's a pity though, because right now, food stamps are obviously needed more than ever.
As Senator Sessions said as he argued for cuts, "This is more than just a financial issue. It is a moral issue as well." Exactly. At least we can all agree on that.