Cover Story

Food stamps surge

"Food stamps surge" Continued...

Issue: "Food stamps surge," Nov. 19, 2011

The Obama administration has tried to speed up new food stamp enrollment. On Nov. 20, 2009, just before Thanksgiving, the Department of Agriculture sent a letter to state administrators complaining that some of them were running their food stamp programs in a way that was "problematic and resulted in a more complex and difficult enrollment process." That year in southern Ohio, Warren County commissioners threatened to pull out of SNAP because new rules made a family with more than $400,000 in assets and savings eligible. Contacted this fall, Commissioner Dave Young recalled, "They were literally driving up in Mercedes [to collect SNAP cards]. I think there's something inherently wrong with that."

That is unusual but possible, since Ohio applicants for food stamps may own their own homes and surrounding land, motor vehicles, furniture, jewelry, and pension funds, with no limits to their value. Young said his county did not pull out of SNAP, yet "Nothing changed." Administrators have made growing the welfare rolls a priority: Young says he's been told that if food stamp applications were checked, "the program would slow to a standstill." Young says concerning his protest, "We were not trying to be inhumane. Everybody needs a helping hand occasionally. It shouldn't be a way of life. It should be a last resort."

Food stamp proponents have tried to break the will of those among the elderly who, following American traditions of independence, are reluctant to sign up (see next page). The Boston Globe reported, "Advocates for the elderly are pushing hard to get area senior citizens in need of assistance to apply for the federal food stamp program, but pride and embarrassment stand in the way." The Globe quoted officials in Newton, one of Boston's affluent and liberal suburbs, emphasizing that SNAP is "like Social Security or Medicare-something that seniors have paid taxes into and have earned the benefits in return. ... We educate seniors that this is a program they are entitled to."

Some conservatives have attacked food stamps because of the cost: $68 billion this year. That is a lot of money in a battered economy, but a greater problem is the change in consciousness, with welfare changing from temporary assistance for the desperate to a normal part of life. In 1868 the key sentence of a popular song was, "He'd fly through the air with the greatest of ease, that daring young man on the flying trapeze." Today officials croon, Flop into the safety net. You're entitled to it.

Living on a food stamps budget is certainly not steaks and salmon. The maximum benefit for a family of four is about $8 per meal, and the average is about $6 per meal. Some could use more than they get, but the House of Representatives wants to cut SNAP expenses as part of a plan to reduce deficits. If political leaders and media continue the push to add millions more to the rolls, they are likely to diminish the resources available for the truly needy, create cynicism about the program as a whole, and accustom millions more to a life of unnecessary dependency.

New Orleans food bank director Briane Greene told the Times-Picayune: "Food stamps are the first line of defense against hunger. Food banks are the last line of defense." That has it backwards. Americans generally and the poor specifically would be far better off if church and community programs came first and federal programs were the last resort.

Listen to Marvin Olasky discuss the food stamps surge on WORLD's radio news magazine The World and Everything in It.

Helping by hurting

Can food stamps be regarded as economic stimulus?

By Marvin Olasky

The Department of Agriculture in recent years has announced that every $5 billion spent on food stamps generates $9 billion in economic activity-which means that we purportedly help others by going on welfare. The Eureka Times-Standard reported that "the local economy" could be saved, "one food stamp at a time."

Newspapers uncritically accepted that figure, which originated with a 2002 study, "Effects of Changes in Food Stamp Expenditures Across the U.S. Economy." But are food stamps truly an economic stimulus? A closer look at that report shows that they are only if Washington borrows the money and increases our gargantuan federal deficit. Otherwise, they hurt the economy and increase unemployment.

Department of Agriculture publicists have ignored some crucial findings in their own study. First, authors Kenneth Hanson and Elise Golan concluded that borrowing by the U.S. government to expand food stamps would "allow recipients to shift cash income previously spent on food to nonfood spending, recipient households increased their spending on nonfood items by $3.7 billion."

In other words, three-fourths of food stamps made no difference in the quantity or quality of food that families had: Instead, parents would save money on food and use that money to buy other things.

Second, Hanson and Golan concluded, "If the same recession-driven increase in [food stamp] benefits is financed through increased taxes or other budget-neutral means, the stimulus effect of the increase in expenditures is dampened or even reversed." In their simulation, "Low-income households increased spending on non-food goods, but mid- and high-income households reduced spending by even more."

More money for government, but less overall household income and spending, led to less economic activity. In this scenario household income fell by $1 billion and 14,400 jobs were lost. So much for the food stamp stimulus.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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