The US House of Representatives will be considering the Senate’s version of the 2013 Farm Bill this week. A great deal of the debate over the bill will center on reductions in the food stamp program, which comprises a large portion of the spending in the Farm Bill. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), previously known as the Food Stamp program, has become one of the fastest growing welfare programs provided by the US government. SNAP is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture while the benefits are distributed by individual U.S. states.
Nearly 80% of the $955 billion Farm Bill is devoted to SNAP. In an effort to control the rising cost of SNAP payments, both the Senate and House versions of the Farm Bill reduce the funding levels for SNAP. The Senate version cuts $4 billion from the program, which is predicted to cut the expected cost of the program to about $760 billion over the next 10 years while adding provisions to combat the illegal trafficking of food stamps. The House version takes these cuts even further, cutting the SNAP program by around $20.5 billion over 10 years. The White House has warned legislators in the House that if they pass the larger cuts the President may veto the bill.
According to the Congressional Bridget Office, 1 in 7 Americans receive SNAP benefits, at a cost of $134 each month, this equates to a monthly cost of around $6 billion. Over the last five years, SNAP’s costs have doubled. According to the Associated Press, in 2012 alone, SNAP cost $78.4 billion to put 46 million people on food stamps; in 2006, 26 million people received benefits at a cost of $33 billion. Regardless of the cuts Congress decides to make, the fact that SNAP has been growing at a rapid rate cannot be ignored. Similar growth over an extended period may create a situation where the program cannot be sustained.
The key issues with SNAP are centered on eligibility, waste and abuse. In the states using categorical eligibility for the SNAP program, recipients are determined not by the set income and asset limitations of SNAP, but by participation in other cash welfare assistance programs, which can have lesser eligibility standards.
Eligibility for the program expanded considerably since its inception. Currently, SNAP is the fourth largest means-tested program for low income families and individuals. This rapid expansion of eligibility has led to a rapid growth in the number of individuals receiving SNAP benefits. When the food stamp program was first expanded nationally in the 1970s, just 1 in 50 Americans participated.
Another issue which has inflated the number of food stamp recipients is the funding structure used by SNAP. Under the current funding structure, states are given an incentive to increase the number of participants in SNAP, as the money they receive automatically increases as more people enroll.
In a Heritage Foundation paper outlining needed reforms to the food stamp program, Robert Rector and Katherine Bradley recommended several areas where SNAP could be improved, returning the program to its intended role and encourage work and self-sufficiency.
“Future spending needs to be subject to reasonable limits. When the economy recovers, total means-tested spending should be returned to pre-recession levels adjusted for inflation. Food stamp spending should also be returned to pre-recession levels when the recession ends. In addition, when the economy improves, able-bodied, non-elderly adults receiving food stamps should be required to work, prepare for work, or at least look for a job as a condition of receiving aid.”
Efforts to reform SNAP were also considered in amendments to last year’s 2012 Farm Bill proposal. These reforms would have ended the bonuses states receive when they increase their food stamp participation (the CBO estimated this change could save $480 million over 10 years). A second amendment aimed to restore asset tests designed to ensure SNAP recipient meet eligibility requirements (this was estimated to save $11 billion over 10 years). Both amendments failed in the Senate.
Simply cutting spending on SNAP does little to effect the programs glaring issues. Reforms ensuring that recipients are both truly eligible and actively seeking work are needed. Both Congress and state legislators should take a closer look at such reforms before SNAP expenditures spiral out of control.