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Food Stamp Follies

Posted on the 11 February 2012 by ---

Food Stamp Follies

What Food Stamps Used to Look Like

Newt Gingrich has raised a few eyebrows this year with his persistent application of the label "Food Stamp President" to Barack Obama.  He insists that the spike in food stamps is part of a larger Democratic plan to increase reliance on government and make welfare programs into what conservative hero Paul Ryan has called "a hammock, which lures able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency."  Does Newt have a point?
Claims of a sinister agenda aside, the official statistics say he does.  The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program paid out $71.8 billion in benefits during 2011, an all-time record.  44.7 million people received benefits, also an all-time record.  These numbers are up from $50.4 billion and 33.5 million people in 2009, Obama's first year in office.  So yes, there has been a significant increase since Obama took office.  More than anything else, this can be attributed to high rates of unemployment and underemployment combined with stagnating wages.  In other words, the explosion in those taking advantage of the safety net is due to the economic downturn, not due to a desire of anyone to grow the size of government.
Food stamps have plenty of critics.  They suggest that people who receive benefits have a disincentive to work, and that there are abundant 'welfare queens' living large on taxpayer dollars.  For an example of this attitude, just read this recent letter to the editor of the Berkshire Eagle.  Unlike these people suggest, SNAP should not be defunded; it should be strengthened.  Not only do we have a humanitarian obligation to provide for the less fortunate and help them get through tough times, but we also have a pragmatic obligation to do what is best for the prosperity of our nation.  Food stamps meet this test as well.  They provide both a valuable economic stimulus and an aid in reducing the crime that is caused by desperation.  And, considering that the average daily benefit per person is only $4.40, it is highly unlikely that the 'comfort' of such a government-subsidized lifestyle would make anyone stop trying to find work, much less order extravagant meals.
What can be done to improve the way SNAP works?  Narrowing the list of eligible purchases to weed out the least nutritious and most obesity-inducing items is a good place to start.  The government should not be paying for things like Mountain Dew soda or Little Debbie products.  This constriction in options should correspond with an increase in payouts to allow recipients to afford healthy foods like fresh produce.  Although this will be a short-term increase in expenses, the improved health outcomes of 14.3% of the US population may provide long-term savings in healthcare.  Finally, the aggressive oversight that has cut fraud in half over the last decade (7.01% in 1999 to 3.53% in 2009, according to the GAO) should continue so that more waste can be trimmed from the food stamp budget.
While Republicans are technically correct in labeling Obama the "Food Stamp President," they are incorrect in blaming him for the increase in enrollment and incorrect in diagnosing the program itself as the problem.  To fashion a better society for all Americans to enjoy, we need to shore up the safety net, not decimate it.

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