By Christine Harbin Hanson
The Farm Bill deal that Congress agreed to in January offered very little in terms of rolling back controversial agriculture subsidies, and even less in the way of food stamp reform. The only tangible change in the conference report designed to rein in runaway food stamp spending was a modest provision that sought to tighten a loophole that allows people to automatically—or, “categorically”—qualify for food stamps based on their participation in a heating assistance program. And that provision has turned out to be as inconsequential as it was obscure; In the time since President Obama signed the deal into law, efforts at the state level have completely undermined this reform.
In the past, most state governments would only have to give people $1 in heating assistance in order for them to qualify for food stamps, commonly known as the LIHEAP loophole. The Farm Bill conference report raised the threshold to $20 in heating assistance. This change would have saved $8.6 billion over the next decade and would only impact 4% of food-stamp beneficiaries, according to the Congressional Budget Office’s score.
But,, many states are increasing the amount of heating assistance that they provide from $1 to $20 in an effort to keep the loophole open—and the federal handouts flowing. This change means that House Democrats’ grand-standing over food stamp cuts paid off, and that conservatives who expected some nominal concessions on this fast-expanding welfare program as part of the legislation were short-changed. Food stamp spending will be unchanged and federal taxpayers will be left footing the bill for a Farm Bill that’s even bigger and more bloated than its massive predecessors.
Here at Americans for Prosperity, we’re disappointed. Lawmakers should find a balance in providing temporary assistance to people in need, while putting a check on out-of-control federal spending. AFP has recommended a number of ways to do this. One way is to reinstate income requirements and asset tests at the state level, to ensure that the people who are receiving food stamps are truly low income. Another way would be to eliminate categorical eligibility completely.
One way for Congress to go even further on food stamp reform is to turn SNAP into a block grant program for states. This will streamline the food stamp program, give states the flexibility to adapt the program to their unique needs, and incentivize states to ensure that benefits are going only to the neediest individuals (federal officials made a whopping $2.7 billion in improper payments under the program in 2012 alone).
Taking a big picture perspective, high food stamp spending is a symptom of serious, underlying economic problems. Too many people are struggling to find a job in the down economy. Unfortunately for out-of-work Americans, the Obama administration is focused more on policies that would increase unemployment than on getting Americans back to work or reining in federal spending.
The number of Americans on food stamps has skyrocketed from 33 million in 2009 to almost 50 million today. Without meaningful reform, the program will continue to look less like a temporary safety net, and more like a permanent hammock of dependency. That’s not fair to taxpayers, and it’s not fair to the millions of Americans looking to break out of this destructive cycle. Lawmakers owe it to both groups to take meaningful steps toward reform.