Unemployment is at a record low. The U.S. economy has logged nine straight years of slow-but-steady growth. Yet somehow, 40 million Americans need help from the government just to put food on the table. Although that figure is down from its post-recession peak of 47.6 million in 2013, it's still far above where it was in 2007, when only 26 million Americans were enrolled in food stamps (formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).
Congressional Republicans are right to believe that there's something terribly out of whack here. How can so many Americans have jobs yet so many still qualify for food stamps? But their solution — adding tougher work requirements to the program — rests on a faulty premise that people are gaming the system, rather than the reality that so many of the jobs added since the recession are low-wage. If they succeed in imposing the new eligibility rules, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that it will force 1.2 million Americans out of SNAP by 2028 — most of them parents with school-aged children. What a callous and wrongheaded response to the complex problem of poverty in one of the richest countries in the world.
The work rules are part of the $868 billion farm bill being debated in the House this week, which has split predictably along partisan lines. "We are focusing on empowering people," House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said this week while defending the proposal. And he may well believe that. It's a persistent, if flawed, article of faith among conservatives that public assistance can do more harm than good because it encourages dependency on government help. Under this line of thinking, if poor people were given the right incentive to get off their rears and do an honest day's work, they would be better off in the long term. That's a nice story, but no more accurate than that of apocryphal welfare queens who drive luxury cars and wear designer jeans financed with overly generous public assistance checks.
We agree that people should be encouraged to work and helped to overcome the barriers they may face to employment. But it's worth bearing in mind that food stamp recipients already are required to hold down jobs or attend work-related instruction if they're capable, as mandated in 1996 as part of a larger restructuring of welfare benefits under former President Bill Clinton. About 44% of the households relying on food stamps have at least one person employed, according to 2015 data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The current rules limit individuals without kids who are 18 to 49 years old to three months of SNAP benefits every three years unless they are working or enrolled in a government-sponsored training program. This group accounts for only about 17% of SNAP beneficiaries — the rest are minors, people caring for young children, seniors and disabled individuals. (College students and immigrants in the country illegally are not eligible for benefits, no matter how poor or hungry they may be.)
The new rules would extend the work requirement to those up to age 59 and to parents of children as young as 6, while increasing the number of hours of work required per week from 20 to 25 by 2026. The CBO estimated that about a third of the recipients who would be covered by the new work requirements already would meet them, and most of the remaining group would be exempted. Nevertheless, a large number would still drop off the rolls, the CBO projected.
Would the House GOP proposal result in more people gainfully employed? Maybe. But the added bureaucracy and hoops that recipients would be required to jump through — such as having their eligibility checked every month — would certainly raise the program's costs and reduce participation by needy Americans whose work hours may fluctuate wildly from month to month.
So what problem are House Republicans trying to solve? There's no evidence of massive fraud in the system; instead, the government reports a fraud rate of less than 1% — one of the lowest rates of any government program. Its administrative costs also have been relatively low.
Nor is anyone getting rich on food stamps benefits. Enrollees receive only $126 a month on average. To be eligible, applicants must have income of 130% of the poverty line or less, the equivalent of $2,213 a month or less for a family of three. That is hardly enough to pay for rent in Los Angeles, let alone buy food. And the new work rules, which could hurt so many legitimately needy people, wouldn't even save the government much money. The CBO estimates the new work and reporting rules will save $9.2 billion over 10 years by forcing people out of the program, but would cost an added $7.7 billion to provide more government training programs for those who need them to remain eligible, as well as to administer the new rules.
There is indeed something wrong when so many Americans need help feeding themselves and their families. But it is not something that can be fixed by imposing new, unproven and, frankly, miserly work rules on poor Americans.