Acton Institute Powerblog

It’s Time To Rethink Food Stamps

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snapMichael Tanner of the Cato Institute released a recent policy analysis that raises important questions about whether or not we should completely re-conceptualize how to provide food for the truly disadvantaged. In “SNAP Failure: The Food Stamp Program Needs Reform” Tanner argues The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is currently crippled by high administrative costs, significant fraud and abuse, and weakening of standards. Tanner notes that SNAP breeds greater dependence on government, and, even worse, seems to have negligible long-term effectiveness in eliminating food deficiencies for the truly disadvantaged.

The statistics are overwhelming. Using primarily government data, Tanner observes that the poverty is politicized in Congress through the framing of food stamps as fulfilling two separate goals—“improved levels of nutrition” and “strengthening the agricultural economy.” This created the “bipartisan” support that has exploded funding and served the interests of both political parties. Everybody wins, except for the poor. According to Tanner, “Since 2000, spending on SNAP increased from just $17 billion per year to more than $78 billion in 2012, a greater than fourfold increase.” The increase in spending cannot even be blamed on the recession. According to Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates, 35 percent of the program’s growth from 2007 to 2011 was not a result of economic factors in the country.

The factors that have created the expansion include:

(1) Relaxed Eligibility–the qualifications to receive food stamps are increasingly more relaxed so qualifiers include those who are not truly disadvantaged. Nearly 17 percent of SNAP households have incomes above the poverty line.

(2) Increased Participation from Outreach–the incentive structure from the federal government rewards states for increasing their SNAP rolls. Tanner notes,

Federal and state governments now spend more than $41.3 million annually on advertising and outreach for food stamps, a sixfold increase since 2000. Some states have even hired so-called food stamp recruiters with monthly quotas of recipients to sign. example, Florida SNAP recruiters have a quota of 150 new participants per month, which may help account for that state’s tremendous growth in food stamp receipt.

With perverse incentives like this it is no wonder the number of recipients is rapidly increasing.

(3) Increased Benefits—the amount of cash and in-kind benefits continues to increase and inadvertently encourages participants to find ways to bundle the benefits with other welfare programs—including reclassifying expenditures to demonstrate increased need.

Is the current system achieving good results? Not really. While SNAP does keep the worst-off from starving, the Government Accounting Office reports that there is no evidence to suggest that SNAP is at all effective at alleviating hunger and malnutrition for low-income households. To make matters worse, the program fosters a culture of dependency. Almost 56 percent of SNAP program recipients are on the program for 5 years or more. The program also removes the incentives to seek employment, especially when the program is bundled with any of the other 21 different food assistance welfare programs.

Tanners rightly wonders if low-income families are better off with SNAP than they would be if they were in a system of flourishing local private charities. That is a wonderful question that needs further exploring. Tanner believes that the current data suggests needed changes in the program, such as giving states the right incentives to target the benefits to the truly needy, raising eligibility requirements, ending the bundling of SNAP with other welfare programs, strengthening the link between receiving benefits and meeting work requirements, and giving states block grants so that they are free to structure the program for their particular needs.

The one-size-fits-all approach over the past 50 years or so isn’t really helping those who need it. Simply pouring more money into a deeply flawed system for the sake of political gain is unconscionable. If we want to help people on the margins in ways that are both efficient and effective we are going to have to do this differently in the future.

Anthony Bradley Anthony Bradley, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics in the Public Service Program at The King's College in New York City and serves as a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute. Dr. Bradley lectures at colleges, universities, business organizations, conferences, and churches throughout the U.S. and abroad. His books include: Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and the Black Experience in America (2010),  Black and Tired: Essays on Race, Politics, Culture, and International Development (2011),  The Political Economy of Liberation: Thomas Sowell and James Cone of the Black Experience (2012), Keep Your Head Up: America's New Black Christian Leaders, Social Consciousness, and the Cosby Conversation (2012), Aliens in the Promised Land:  Why Minority Leadership Is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions (forthcoming, 2013). Dr. Bradley's writings on religious and cultural issues have been published in a variety of journals, including: the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Detroit News, and World Magazine. Dr. Bradley is called upon by members of the broadcast media for comment on current issues and has appeared C-SPAN, NPR, CNN/Headline News, and Fox News, among others. He studies and writes on issues of race in America, hip hop, youth culture, issues among African Americans, the American family, welfare, education, and modern slavery. From 2005-2009, Dr. Bradley was Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO where he also directed the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute.   Dr. Bradley holds Bachelor of Science in biological sciences from Clemson University, a Master of Divinity from Covenant Theological Seminary, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Westminster Theological Seminary.  Dr. Bradley also holds an M.A. in Ethics and Society at Fordham University.


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  • Those are the only factors that have created the expansion? What need factors have created the expansion?

  • Elleblue Jones

    Would it be useful for the government to fund city organic gardening where families can work to feed themselves and then assistance for other necessities can be provided. Not working plays havoc on self esteem. Supporting mothers and children working together to provide for their family would help build community as well.

    • Why can’t people garden on their own, taking responsibility for their own needs and desires? Even in cities where citizens have limited space, container gardening is an option. Trying to get the government to manage gardens would be a bureaucratic nightmare.

      • Elise,
        We live in an interdependent society with people of varying skills and aptitude. When gov’t represents the people, gov’t can help. But our problem isn’t gov’t directly, it is us. We don’t supervise the gov’t so when the gov’t gets involved, it represents other interests and works less efficiently.

        • “…when the gov’t gets involved, it represents other interests and works less efficiently.” Yes. Absolutely true. That’s why we don’t want the government to take care of our private needs, our neighborhood gardens, our local issues. It’s not efficient, and big government’s interests are NOT the same as ours.

          • Elise,
            To describe gov’t the way you do is to make the same mistake that Martin Luther King attributes to capitalism. That mistake is to forget that life is social.

            The only reason why the interests of gov’t, whatever level, are not the same as its people is because the people have embraced a laissez-faire relationship with gov’t where the people want to elect a gov’t it can ignore until the next election. When that happens, other interests fill the vacuum the people make when they ignore gov’t to pursue their own interests.

  • Bill Hickman

    Anthony – you cite statistics showing that SNAP use has increased recently, then you make the logical leap of characterizing such use as “dependence,” as though SNAP has a kind of addictive quality. How do you make that leap? I don’t understand the empirical basis of that value judgment.

    You state that SNAP is “crippled by…significant fraud and abuse”. But the Cato report’s most generous estimate of the amount of “fraud” in the program puts it at 3.9%. How is fraud crippling a 96% fraud-free program?

    Also, you wonder how people would fare with less SNAP but “a system of flourishing local private charities.” Where will this system come from? Why doesn’t it already exist? If you admit (and I agree) that a system of private charity is a moral necessity, wouldn’t it also follow that, in that private system’s absence, a public system that meets the unmet needs of the poor is also a moral good?

    • Lisa Robinson

      I believe it already exists with local food banks.