Unable to push a $20-billion cut in food stamps through the House in June, Republicans are now seeking to cut $40 billion over 10 years by tightening eligibility and cutting off able-bodied adults who don't find or train for jobs. Far too many Americans are on food stamps, and parts of the GOP proposal have a patina of reasonableness. But while it may motivate some idle adults to get to work, it would also punish those who simply can't find jobs at a time when there are three applicants for every opening.
The federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program helps buy food for those who earn up to 30% more than the federal poverty level (which is $11,490 for a single adult). The amount is modest — an average of $5.10 per day for a single adult — and it's reduced as the beneficiary's income grows.
The program has skyrocketed in cost, however, because so many people are on it: about 47 million, or 1 in 7 Americans. The fastest-growing group may be able-bodied adults without dependents, which increased from 1.7 million in 2007 to 4.5 million in 2011. That happened in part because of the surge in unemployment, particularly among younger adults, and in part because the government waived the requirement that such recipients lose their benefits after three months unless they work at least 20 hours a week or attend a training program.
The House proposal would reinstate that cutoff, on the dubious theory that the availability of a few dollars in food aid per day is enough to persuade people not to work. The only research offered in support is from an economist who argues that extended unemployment benefits and other safety-net programs exacerbated the downturn.
Proponents say they're simply trying to restore the work requirements that were the hallmark of the 1996 welfare reform act, but they're overlooking two key differences. While the 1996 law sought to help those in poverty overcome the barriers to employment, the House bill would let states cut off food aid without offering recipients opportunities to work, get job training or perform community service. In fact, it would give states a financial incentive to do so. And the welfare reforms were aided by a booming economy, making it easier for people with few job skills to find work. The economy today is sputtering, causing stiff competition even for low-wage, low-skill jobs.
Data from before the recession show that few people stop working after they start receiving food stamps. And states and cities have been reimposing the work requirement as their economies improve. By pushing that process ahead prematurely, the House bill would force some laid-off workers off the rolls because they can't find a job, and there are no other ways for them to satisfy the work requirement.
The real solution to the high demand for food stamps is to get the economy growing faster, not to force more Americans to go hungry. Unfortunately, the former is hard to do, and the latter seems all too easy for the House GOP.