Food stamp program must be retained
Never known for its speed, Congress has moved exceptionally slow this summer. Party lines have blurred as interest groups fight over the farm bill, an omnibus measure that has traditionally funded the food stamp/Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Conservatives are attacking the program as a relic of "dependency class" welfare, and budget hawks from both parties are challenging agricultural interests in hopes of reducing farm subsidies. As both of these issues have proved highly contentious, the House passed its most recent Farm Bill by separating the nutrition program into its own bill. Hawks can get their subsidy cuts, while the nutrition program braces for the cuts it could face as a stand-alone bill.
Legislation comes from compromise, but Congress is playing politics with people's livelihood. Cutting food aid will only endanger our most impoverished and marginalized families.
Formerly known as food stamps, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is the most direct, effective service provided to the poor. Enrollees receive an average of $4.50 per person per day, a stipend that can cover grain staples for the frugal-minded. Indeed, the program's "welfare queen" reputation is wholly unearned; these funds work to put food on hungry children's plates.
In Texas, 82 percent of all participants are families with children and 25 percent are in households with the elderly and disabled. The aid does not come easily either - completing the application requires working through 12 formidable pages of documenting income, expense and dependent status. This stringency has resulted in all-time low error rates, with overpayment at just 4 percent - lower than many of the Farm Bill's untouchable subsidy programs.
Regardless of these facts, detractors say the nutrition program creates dependency among its recipients. This is patently false. Food stamps are a telltale sign of economic struggle, and few people ever want to broadcast their financial difficulties.
Opponents who want to score political points suggest work requirements or drug testing, as if the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program subsidizes idleness. More than half of participants are already working when they enroll, while many of those who are not require food stamps as transitional aid while they find employment. Furthermore, the nonpartisan Center of Budget and Policy Priorities reports that among those who worked in the year prior to receiving nutrition benefits, only 4 percent did not work in the following year. That hardly stinks of welfare dependency.
As for drug testing recipients, Florida shows that idea's folly. In 2011, just 108 of 4,086 (2.6 percent) of Floridians applying for assistance failed their drug tests. The requirement did not lead to any drop in applications and, after factoring in reimbursements paid to testers, the "savings" of unpaid benefits from testing actually cost Florida $45,780.
Time and time again, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program proves that it is for the working poor, yet foes seem set on its demise. They cite increased enrollment as proof of a growing "dependency class," but the increased enrollment shows the program doing its job.
Participants have never stayed on the program for long - half of all new cases receive food stamps for fewer than ten months, and nearly three-quarters leave after two years. Like it or not, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program puts food on the table for those who need it most, when they need it most. A helping hand is not a safety net.