The U.S. House may not be able to agree on much when it comes to the size and scope of federal programs, but one thing has been clear over the last few years: Republicans feel the growth in our nation’s nutritional support programs, most notably the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is a problem.
With the next farm bill (which establishes federal policy for these programs) not due until 2018, the House Agriculture Committee is holding a series of hearings examining how to redesign SNAP and other nutrition programs to meet today’s needs.
Committee members are correct to see the growth in these programs as a problem. What began as a lifeline for a small number of citizens in 1964 swelled to support for more than 17.2 million Americans in 2000. The programs now serve 46.5 million citizens, about half of them children, and cost $74.1 billion annually to maintain, all from federal coffers.
However, the problem isn’t as simple as many Republicans would make it seem. As R Street Associate Fellow Doug Besharov of the University of Maryland testified before the committee last week, when nutritional support first began in the racially polarized mid-20th century, the program was designed intentionally to bypass the states, as many states, especially in the South, refused to offer welfare programs to minorities, particularly African-Americans. This biased treatment, combined with lack of opportunity for these citizens, created real hunger and malnutrition among large pockets of the population.
Today, the problem is flipped. Many states want to increase enrollment in SNAP because its benefits represent money is off the states’ books, rather than because they are practicing overt discrimination. Additionally, insufficient caloric consumption is, for the most part, no longer a problem, even for the underprivileged. In fact, poverty has become correlated with high caloric consumption, with too much of it coming in the form of empty calories that lead to obesity.
The federal government tried to keep program spending under control in the past through state-level asset tests, strong means testing, strict household definitions and work requirements, among other restrictions. However, during the early 2000s and through the Great Recession, many of these restraints were lifted in an effort both to help those suffering the consequences economic dislocation and to ease the burden on state budget coffers. Additionally, benefit levels were raised and individuals who receive other welfare supports – such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families – were deemed categorically eligible, increasing the incentive for more individuals to enroll.
Republicans have blasted these loosened restrictions, particularly the lifted work requirements and categorical eligibility, for the swelling rolls of SNAP recipients. Yet even with these looser guidelines, according to the Congressional Research Service, only 5 percent of those who received SNAP benefits in 2011 were more than 130 above of the poverty line. This suggests there are real needs among the SNAP population. But it’s also true that, after 50 years of helping keep people afloat, SNAP has done relatively little to lift people up.
It’s time to rethink what individuals need most. SNAP participation has increased as the labor force participation rate has fallen. But SNAP’s “off the books” structure discourages state officials from thinking about how to best serve this populations’ needs.
Besharov suggests cost-sharing for states as one way to encourage better practices, but more should be done. The decline in labor-force participation, the increase in disability rolls and the rise of single parenthood are the real drivers in the growth of SNAP participation. As Besharov notes, SNAP may be supplementing incomes for families who probably can afford food, but not many other modern necessities. Simply providing food aid while neglecting the real drivers of program growth will only result in more dollars out the door.
Luckily, the last farm bill contained a work-pilot grant program that will allow states to compete for federal dollars to create job training programs to encourage individuals to move into the workforce, and off of SNAP assistance. Rather than continuing to expect Uncle Sam to spend more on food aid, states should be helping people get back to work and training their citizens for jobs that local industry actually needs. After all, the adage regarding giving a man a fish exists for a reason. Unfortunately, for those who want to learn to fish, states would rather lean on federal government than provide the necessary fishing lessons.