Here is a fact that should disturb everyone, regardless of their politics: Today, about one out of every seven Americans receives food stamps. That's a population of 45 million people -- roughly the size of Spain -- who rely on government help to feed themselves.
There are two ways to interpret this number. On the one hand, you could take it as evidence of just how crucial the social safety net has become in the wake of the Great Recession, as families are quite literally struggling to put food on the table. On the other, you could just read it as an example of government welfare run amok.
Guess which view is popular among conservatives these days.
This past week, Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama proposed a handful of amendments to the farm bill that would tighten food stamp eligibility and end payments to states that increase the size of their rolls. They were relatively modest, reaping up to $20 billion in savings from a program expected to cost $770 billion over the next ten years, and were rejected by Senate Democrats as well as a handful of GOP moderates. But the cuts were part of a growing Republican animosity to the food stamp program. Libertarian hero Rand Paul had previously proposed cutting it by more than 40 percent. The Republican-led House, where Oversight Committee chair Darryl Issa has been rampaging about alleged fraud in the program, has passed a bill that would nix $34 billion from its budget.
There is no question that the food stamp program is expensive and growing. Enrollment in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), as its 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 had an average income of $731 dollars, including other welfare payments. Around 85 percent of recipients were 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.
Meanwhile, we're 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 philosophically opposed to lower-class welfare (middle-class welfare, well that's a different story). It's a pity though. Because right now, they're 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.
Jordan Weissmann is an associate editor at The Atlantic. He has written for a number of publications, including The Washington Post and The National Law Journal.