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Why Food Stamps Are a Safety Net, Not a “Hammock”

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The U.S. Census Bureau released figures [September 17] revealing 46.5 million people were living at or below the poverty line — a near-record in the last two decades.

Two days later, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 217-210 to cut food stamps, thinning the rolls by four million people next year and millions more after that. It was a dramatic juxtaposition, made all the more striking because of the heated rhetoric. No Democrat supported the cuts.

Why cut this program now?

Equal Voice News took a look at the arguments, dug up key food stamp facts and found plenty to chew on:

1. Supporters of the cuts say the program, which has been around since the Great Depression, has grown out of control.

True, the program has grown exponentially, from serving 28 million people in 2008 to 47 million last year. Its cost has jumped from $38 billion to $78 billion during this period. But is this out-of-control spending, as critics say? Or is the program working as intended?

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is designed to be countercyclical. If the economy is good, if employment is high and if real earnings are strong, then SNAP enrollment is lower. On the other hand, the higher the unemployment rate, the slower the economic recovery, the more people depend on food stamps to feed their families.

So yes, SNAP enrollment has grown since the Great Recession began. And it has remained high, as the economic recovery has focused mostly on higher income-earners. As the Census revealed, nearly seven million more people are living in poverty than when the recession began.

The SNAP rolls will naturally decline as the economic recovery reaches down into lower income levels. As the economy strengthens over the next decade, enrollment is expected to drop from one in seven Americans to one in 10 Americans, or 34 million people, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

2. Those in favor of the cuts say the program doesn’t work.

Representative Marlin Stutzman, (R-IN), for example, had this to say: “In the real world, we measure success by results. It’s time for Washington to measure success by how many families are lifted out of poverty and helped back on their feet.”

The truth is, the Census Bureau noted that SNAP had helped keep four million people out of poverty last year.

3. Lawmakers who want to cut food stamps see the program as fiscally irresponsible. “This bill …puts us on a fiscally responsible path,” Representative Marlin Stutzman (R-IN) said.

A few years ago, at the beginning of the recession, Moody’s Economy.com, a subsidiary of the bond rating company, took a look at ways to boost the economy. They examined more than a dozen ideas including aid to state governments, tax cuts and spending increases.

Of all the options, food stamps offered the best “bang for the buck,” the report said: For every dollar in food stamps, the economy was expected to grow by $1.73. Contrast that to capital gains tax cuts, which grow the economy 37 cents for every dollar spent, according to Moody’s.

“People who receive these benefits are very hard pressed and will spend any financial aid they receive within a few weeks,” the report said.

4. Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, has called SNAP and other federal safety net programs “a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency.”

The truth is, children make up almost half of SNAP recipients. Another 10 percent are people age 60 and older. And the average food stamp allotment is $133 per person per month.

Moreover, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the percentage of SNAP participants who worked has grown from 20 to 30 percent in the last two decades and the number receiving cash welfare has declined fivefold.

5. Cutting the program will save taxpayer money. 

Maybe in the short term. But it’s well-established that inadequate nutrition is linked with long-term health problems, including heart disease, and diabetes, according to a report by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Kids who don’t eat right have higher rates of asthma and cognitive impairment. All these things cost money. “Children in families receiving SNAP are less likely to have poor health outcomes,” the report said.

So what’s next?

The Senate sees the food stamp program in an entirely different way from the House, and the leadership says their version of the legislation will be far less drastic. The House vote, said Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) was “a monumental waste of time.”

Should the House bill somehow reach the president’s desk, he has promised to veto it.

(Maureen O’Hagan is the reporter for Equal Voice News, where this post first appeared. The Associated Press contributed to this report. Republished with permission.)

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