Enrollment in the food stamp program ballooned during President Barack Obama’s eight years in the Oval Office, but the hemorrhaging economy he inherited in 2009 was only part of the reason.
Government documents and interviews with elected officials and legal experts indicate that the Obama administration and many state governments used a variety of loopholes and gimmicks to help weaken work requirements and boost participation to its highest level in history in 2013 — more than 47.6 million people.
Since then, the rolls have contracted — but not by as much as might be expected, given the improvement in the economy since the last recession. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), as the food stamp program is formally known, still had 40.7 million recipients as of January — nearly nine years after the recession officially ended. That is up almost 55 percent from 2007.
Republican plans to reform the food stamp program as part of the next farm bill and vociferous opposition from Democrats highlight one of the nation’s biggest philosophical divides over the role of government.
The bill that the House Agriculture Committee passed April 18 strengthens the requirement that able-bodied adults who receive benefits work. At the same time, it tightens eligibility requirements, increases spending on job training programs, and institutes measures targeting fraud.
The full House of Representatives is expected to take up the bill sometime next month. To Rep. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), the proposals are common sense. The agriculture panel member has a hard time explaining why the bill has drawn widespread opposition from across the aisle.
“I’m baffled, myself,” he told LifeZette. “This polls at over 80 percent.”
Critics argue that the changes, however, would inflict pain on millions of low-income Americans.
“These sweeping, aggressive new work requirements would likely prove unworkable and do more harm than good, increasing hunger and poverty,” the left-leaning Center on Budget Policy Priorities wrote in an analysis of the farm bill last week.
“They would force states to develop large new bureaucracies that would need to track millions of SNAP recipients, but likely would do little to boost employment, particularly given that the new funding provided in the bill for job training and work slots would amount to just $30 per month for those recipients who need a work slot to retain SNAP benefits.”
Troubling Long-Term Trend
It is hardly surprising that more Americans needed help putting food on the table after the housing market collapsed in 2008 and triggered a severe recession. That year, 28.2 million people received SNAP benefits. The total climbed to 33.5 million in 2009 and hit 40.3 million the following year.
But enrollment kept expanding even as the unemployment rate declined and the gross domestic product (GDP) started rising. In short, the economy returned to normal, but food stamp enrollment did not.
It is part of a larger trend identified by researchers who study government dependence. Use of government-assistance programs rises and falls with the fortunes of the economy, but the general trend has been up. The conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation calculated that in 2015, nearly 100 million people — almost one in three Americans — participated in at least one of 80 income-based government programs.
[lz_table title=”Food Stamp Nation” source=”Department of Agriculture”]Food stamp enrollment remains well above pre-recession levels.
2006, 26.5 million
2008, 28.2 million
2009, 33.5 million
2010, 40.3 million
*As of January
“There’s kind of a ratcheting effect to all of these programs,” said Michael Tanner, a senior fellow at the libertarian-leaning think tank Cato Institute.
Part of the reason for the increase in usage, Tanner said, is that the Obama administration and state welfare agencies conducted extensive outreach to inform struggling people that they could get help from food stamps.
“We don’t see the same efforts to get people off,” he said.
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Tanner said that once people qualify for food stamps, they are reluctant to give up the help. This is especially true given the perverse incentives created by America’s social safety net. As incomes rise, people start to lose government assistance.
The result is that at the margins, low-income workers have to find jobs that offer a sizable increase in wages or hours to make up the difference. A small boost in pay might leave someone in the same relative position but without the government’s help at dinner time.
“You could actually be worse off,” Tanner said.
The Obama administration did not just spread the word about SNAP. It actually made it easier to qualify, allowing states to implement “categorical eligibility.” Simply put, that meant that anyone who qualified for another government-assistance program automatically qualified for food stamps as well.
The idea seems logical. If someone already has demonstrated a need, why make him or her fill out a second set of forms and submit his or her finances to scrutiny?
The problem, according to reform advocates, is that the Obama administration allowed states to use dubious criteria to sign people up. And most states took advantage.
Affording to a 2014 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, 40 states, plus the District of Columbia, Guam, and the Virgin Islands, received waivers for “broad-based categorical eligibility,” which automatically qualifies anyone who has received a service through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.
“That’s a pretty sad situation, and there were just so many loopholes around it that it was pretty much invisible except in a few states that really basically are applying them to the letter.”
That included people who received a brochure or pamphlet — or who got a referral from an 800 telephone line — paid for by TANF.
Mimi Teixeira, a welfare policy fellow at The Heritage Foundation, said most people who got automatic qualification for food stamps would not actually receive benefits if administrators determined their incomes were too high when they calculated the size of the benefit.
But the GAO report notes that there is an exception for households consisting of one or two people; those households automatically qualify for a food stamp benefit of at least $15 a month in most places.
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And Teixeira pointed out that many states also waived the asset test designed to make sure that people who have little or no income exhaust savings before turning to taxpayers.
“It’s a problem, because it does keep a lot of people on programs who are not elderly who don’t belong on it,” she said.
The Republican farm bill would tighten eligibility requirements. The bill also would change the work requirement, mandating that able-bodied adults from 18 years of age to 59 — except single parents with children younger than 6 — work at least 20 hours a week to get food stamps.
The bill would put an additional $7 billion into job training and apprenticeship — which would satisfy the work requirement — to help people get the skills they need to land jobs. And it provides for case managers to help match SNAP participants with community resources.
In addition, the legislation would make it harder for states to exempt people from the requirement. Currently, for instance, five states — including behemoth California — exempt all of their residents from the work requirement. All of Illinois except for one wealthy county in suburban Chicago is exempt.
Teixeira estimated that waivers have exempted two-thirds of all SNAP enrollees from work requirements.
Marshall, the Kansas congressman, said only 16 states were fully enforcing the work requirement in 2016.
“That’s a pretty sad situation, and there were just so many loopholes around it that it was pretty much invisible except in a few states that really basically are applying them to the letter,” he said.
Marshall said that when his home state added a work requirement for food stamp recipients, it halved the average time people received assistance, from 14 to seven months. The share of those employed jumped from 18 percent to 36 percent, and wages increased from an average of $6,000 to $13,000.
Tanner, the Cato scholar, said the proposed changes make it harder for people to remain on food stamps long term.
“Basically, it’s returning it to the original intent of the program,” he said. “That said, it’s not likely to have a big effect.”
Most food stamp recipients are elderly, children or disabled. Tanner estimated that the new work requirement would impact only about 4 million participants. And he questioned whether the extra money devoted to job training would be put to good use. Most federally funded job training programs are a “dismal failure,” he said.
Teixeira said promoting work is a good step, however. Citing Department of Agriculture data, she said nearly 30 percent of able-bodied, childless adults — about 2.9 million — did not work even an hour a week.
But Teixeira questioned whether the farm bill will work as advertised in eliminating loopholes.
“Our concern, and my concern, is that the bill doesn’t actually do that,” she said. “It just gives the appearance of that.”
Marshall said he believes the bill will, in fact, both close loopholes and push food stamp recipients to self-sufficiency.
“Our goal is that we would help people start a career, not just a get a job working at minimum wage … This is just going to help people get back on their feet,” he said.