Sunday, October 27, 2013

As Congress Mulls Farm Bills, Two Radically Different Takes on the Nation's Food Stamp Program

Proponents and opponents of federal assistance programs square off on SNAP.

By: James Swift

When the federal food stamp program went nationwide in 1974, the financial assistance project had an initial 14 million participants. Three decades would pass before the number of individuals enrolled in the program would double. 

The Great Recession, however, led to a massive increase in the number of program beneficiaries. In 2005, an estimated 25.6 million Americans received food stamp benefits; by 2012, the number of Americans receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) aid was 47.7 million -- almost double the number of food stamp recipients from seven years prior and about three and a half times the number of beneficiaries when the federal program began 40 years earlier.

Costs for the program also skyrocketed during the economic downturn. While the federal food stamp program cost $28.6 billion to operate in 2005, last year, SNAP expenditures ran an estimated $78 billion.

According to United States Department of Agriculture data from 2010, about half of households in the nation receiving SNAP benefits were home to children, of which more than half were single-parent homes. An additional 20 percent of SNAP recipients, the USDA reported, lived in homes with at least one non-elderly, disabled individual.

Per the USDA, the average net monthly income per SNAP household that year was $336. In comparison, the poverty threshold for just a single individual, under contemporary U.S. Department of Health and Human Services guidelines, is nearly three times that number.

On Sept. 19, a Republican plan to cut SNAP spending by $39 billion over the next 10 years was approved by the United States House of Representatives by a 217-210 vote. The total sum eclipses an earlier Senate-approved bill from June, which would have shaved off just $4.1 billion from the SNAP budget over the ensuing decade.

According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), an estimated 3.8 million people could lose food stamp benefits under the  House proposal, while an additional 850,000 may see their benefits reduced by a monthly average of $90. The Obama Administration has already stated that it intends on vetoing the House-approved plan, pending the proposal makes it out of Congress intact.

As the fate of the federally subsidized program awaits on Capitol Hill, Uncommon Journalism recently asked two very different analysts what they thought about the nation’s current food stamp program, pleading their cases as to why SNAP should -- and should not be -- unfunded.

An End to a "Cold, Dysfunctional, Undignified System?"

“The priority needs to be shrinking the programs, cutting taxes and empowering the private sector,” said Carla Howell, Political Director of the National Libertarian Party. “We should be ending this practice of subsidizing fraud, subsidizing people using food stamps to buy candy and sugar and beer and other things they don’t need that are not helpful to them.”

Before becoming the Libertarian Party’s political director, Howell spearheaded three ballot initiatives in Massachusetts, including two which sought to repeal that state’s personal income tax. She has made several bids at public office, including a U.S. senatorial run in 2000 and a gubernatorial campaign in 2002.

Federal programs like SNAP, she said, were ultimately failures that waste money and create permanent dependency.

“The food stamp program, like government welfare programs, often harm the very people they’ve intended to help,” she said. “They divert money away from productive uses to bureaucratic, dysfunctional government programs and often makes things worse in general.”

The SNAP program, Howell said, was a “cold, dysfunctional, undignified” system that damages the economy in the form of higher taxes and deficit spending. In turn, she believes the programming “depletes the wealth of Americans, who are less able to help their families and friends and people of need in their communities.”

Howell’s remedy entails job creation, which she believes is only possible via reduced government spending and lowered taxes. In turn, she said the private sector would then be able to take care of people “at a fraction of the cost that governmental welfare agencies spend.”

Over the last 12 years, she believes there has been a massive increase in the size of “the welfare state” in the U.S. She is particularly disturbed by the fact that one out of six Americans receive SNAP benefits.

“Keep in mind, this is just one out of 126 federal programs,” she said, “21 of which involve food and nutrition, and all these programs are expanding in size of subsidies.”

Government investments in public welfare programs, Howell said, is a misnomer.

“Government never invests,” she said. “It spends.” Those in the private sector, she said, are the ones making real investments in public charity.

“There are thousands of private sector programs, in effect, food banks, churches and charities that help people,” Howell said. “And what’s often not reported is that so much of charity takes place on a very personal level -- friends helping out family members with a medical problem, who have lost their job, who are disabled.” When taxes are high and the economy is in the slumps, she said many charitable individuals are hampered in their ability to give to others.

Last year, the Annie. E Casey Foundation released data indicating that an estimated 23 percent of all children in the nation lived in poverty. Eliminating benefits like SNAP, in tandem with re-investments in the public sector, would result in better lives for the nation’s poor, Howell believes.

“If we do it right, their lives will most definitely improve,” she said. “If we prioritize how we cut spending and make sure we do not so-called ‘invest money,’ but return the reductions in government spending to the people who earned it, in the form of tax-cuts and lowered total government spending and much less government debt.”

Necessary to Avoid "A Depression-Era Situation?"

“The politics that we’ve seen around SNAP benefits are really disgraceful,” said Washington Post contributor Bernardine Watson. “I don’t think that people’s ability to eat should be a political football.”

Watson has spent her entire career working in the youth and social policy field. Since 2002, she’s worked as a Washington D.C.-based independent social policy consultant.

As a child, Watson's family took advantage of food stamps, among several other federal entitlement programs.

“My family, off and on, was on public assistance, and from time to time we would have to get what they called surplus food,” she recalled. Practically everyone who lived in her neighborhood, she said, made pilgrimages to the local recreation center to pick up government-subsidized meals.

“I remember it distinctly,” Watson said. “It wasn’t very tasty, but my mom made it taste good.”

In her early twenties, Watson was left to take care of her son by herself after her marriage dissolved. She connected with an education counselor at a community college, who helped Watson obtain federal assistance as a single mother student.

“Then I transferred to Temple University and was able to use food stamps throughout my time there,” she said. “It basically helped me feed myself and my son until I got my college degree and got a job.”

Without food stamps and other forms of federal aid, Watson thinks her life would have turned out dramatically different. “As a child, I’m not sure what my family would have done to get by,” she said. “And as an adult going through college, I probably would not have gotten my college degree.”

“After I worked for awhile, I got an advanced degree,” she continued. “And I think I’ve more than paid back any money that I got from the government in taxes as a middle-class person.”

If the current federal food stamp program was suspended, Watson said there would be dire repercussions on both education and crime levels. “Children would be unable to do their schoolwork, you’d have more children out on the street trying some kind of hustle to help their parents feed their families,” she said. “I think you’d have sort of a Depression-era situation in many communities in the country.”

Even with the SNAP program in place, Watson said many families are suffering and struggling to get by. “People on food stamps today barely get enough to feed their families,” she said. “And any cuts or threats of cuts to food stamps, I think, would be devastating.”

USDA data from 2012 indicates the average household receiving SNAP benefits pulled in approximately $277 per month from the program. For a family of three, that translates to about $1.03 per meal for every member of the household over a 30 day period.

The requirements for the SNAP program, as is, may be too stringent, Watson said. “I would like to see lower income caps…and certainly, greater monthly allowances, so that people are able to get enough food to feed their families.”

She also considers proposals that would require SNAP recipients to pass drug screenings or enroll in mandatory work programs to be both discriminatory and immoral. “I grew up in a poor neighborhood and my family was poor, but none of us were drug addicts,” Watson said. “We just needed additional assistance in order to eat.”

The elimination of SNAP benefits, Watson argued, would result in the nation’s poor falling into even deeper pits of poverty. “You would see people in America, the richest country in the world, going even hungrier than they are today,” she said. “It would have an impact on education and health…and you’d see those expenses go up in other parts of the United States economy.”

The federal food stamp program, she said, has helped several generations of poor Americans enter the middle class. Outside of economic reasons, she believes the nation has a moral obligation to help out its citizens in most need of help.

“In the United States, which sees itself as ‘a god-fearing country,’ we should not have 23 percent of our [young] people in poverty,” she said. “Everybody in this country should be guaranteed that they will not starve."

Uncommon Journalism, 2013. 

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