AP's Coverage of Congress's Proposed Food Stamp 'Cuts' Has One Telling Revelation, But Avoids Another

One has to sift through the biased blather to get to it, but Mary Clare Jalonick's August 1 coverage at the Associated Press, aka the Administration's Press, of the House's plans to rein in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, still popularly called "food stamps," contains an important admission which most of the establishment press has avoided as the program's costs and enrollment have skyrocketed, all in the name of preserving the false impression that the program is exclusively about preventing people from starving.

As usual, one of those distractions is the tired idea that what the House is proposing represents harmful "cuts," when what is really occurring is a long overdue and yet still watered-down effort to target benefits to the truly eligible and prevent their disbursement to people who either don't need them or shouldn't get them (bolds and numbered tags are mine):


GOP prepares bill to cut food stamps by 5 percent

House Republicans are preparing legislation that would cut food stamps by as much as $4 billion annually in an effort to downsize a program that many conservatives say has become too bloated in recent years. [1]

The measure would reduce the $80 billion-a-year food stamp program by as much as 5 percent. [2] House conservatives have urged major cuts as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, has doubled in cost since 2008. [2]

... Reps. Marlin Stutzman of Indiana and Kristi Noem of South Dakota, two Republicans who helped design the bill, said the legislation would find the savings by tightening eligibility standards [3] and imposing new work requirements. [4] It would also likely try to reduce the rolls by requiring drug testing and barring convicted murderers, rapists and pedophiles from receiving food stamps.

... Much of the estimated savings could come from requiring such adults to seek work, a provision that wasn't in the original bill. The law already requires that they eventually work or receive work training to receive SNAP, but the 2009 stimulus law and waivers issued by the Agriculture Department since then have allowed states to set aside those work requirements. [4]

Notes:

[1] -- Being conservative isn't a requirement to conclude that doubling spending on a program and then watching it stay at a plateau despite millions of people finding jobs -- even if part-time and lower-paying -- means that the program "has become too bloated."

[2] (tagged twice) -- Only in the la-la land known as Washington DC could a 5 percent "cut" after a doubling of program costs in just five years be considered "major." Additionally, as has been pointed out many times by many pundits in many venues, "cuts" in DC talk are against projected spending levels, and aren't hard-and-fast comparisons to prior-year spending. It may end up that we're only looking at costs stabilizing and not going down at all.

To make a real-world comparison, take a spendthrift couple with excessive debts who have allowed their taste in fine dining to get the better of them. Let's say they have increased their number of such visits to 20 per month from 10 just five years ago. They would get little sympathy if they started griping at someone who had the nerve to suggest that cutting back to 19 fine dining visits a month might be worth considering. It would be even worse if they said, "We really planned on increasing our visits to 21 next year, and you're a bunch of heartless meanies to say we have to stay at 20."

[3] -- Jalonick didn't elaborate here, and should have.

Before the recession, the vast majority of states actually followed the eligibility rules which the USDA still pretends are in effect in its 2012 "Quick Facts" document:

Households may have up to $2,000 in assets. Households with an elderly or disabled person may have up to $3,000 in assets. Homes and many vehicles are not counted toward the asset limit.

It's not as easy to get to the truth here as it should be. The Congressional Budget Office, in an April 2012 report, "cleverly" noted that there "were no significant legislative expansions of eligibility for the program" during the past five years, and repeated the USDA's asset eligibility guideline as if it were still universally applicable.

It's not. There have been vast state-level expansions of eligibility declared in the name of an "economic emergency" which has conveniently never ended, as seen below (information obtained at the Food Research & Action Center, a SNAP expansion advocacy group):

FoodStampsAssetMap2012

Only 10 states (the ones in white) are still following the USDA's stated asset eligibility rule. 37 states (and I believe DC, though it's hard to tell) have dropped the asset test entirely. It is possible to have quite a bit in assets which don't generate immediate income and still qualify for benefits. To name just one example from 2009, a Warren County, Ohio couple with "over $80,000" in the bank and owning "a 2001 Toyota and 2006 Mercedes Benz, and a $311,000 home that is paid for," applied for benefits — and received them.

Additionally, roughly two dozen of the states which have dropped the asset test have also loosened the income eligibility guidelines from the USDA's 130% of the Federal Poverty Line (FPL) to between 160% and 200% of the FPL:

FoodStampFPLmap2012

These changes have increased the pool of those who are eligible to receive food stamps by millions, if not tens of millions. And with all due respect, households which have a lot of money in the bank or earnings at twice the poverty level which are receiving food stamps usually aren't doing so to prevent starvation. They're instead using those benefits to increase their disposable income or pay down other debts on the taxpayer's dime.

[4] (tagged twice) -- Note that in an earlier paragraph, Jalonick acts as if the work requirements associated with continued eligibility are "new." But later, she writes that the work requirements went away because of "the 2009 stimulus law and waivers issued by the Agriculture Department." You can't have it both ways, Mary Clare. What Congress's proposed legislation is apparently doing is restoring work requirements whose waiver may conceivably have been justified in late 2008 and 2009 when the economy was cratering, but which should have expired long, long ago.

It hardly seem heartless or cruel to suggest that an able-bodied person at least try to look for work or actively engage in meaningful retraining efforts while receiving food stamps. In fact, it is counterproductive and a waste of human potential to give such a person an incentive not to do those things, which is exactly what the program is now doing in far too many instances.

Perhaps this lack of a work requirement and of an asset test partially explain why at least some potential workers are still sitting on the sidelines instead of actively pursuing employment, and why food stamp participation has been stuck above 47 million during the last ten reported months (August 2012 through May 2013), even as the economy has added jobs.

Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.

Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer is a contributing editor for NewsBusters.