This coming Independence Day, almost 47 million Americans will stay dependent on food stamps. That means roughly one-in-seven families will picnic on taxpayers' dollars-about $81 billion this year.
Yet the Senate has already shot down a block grant amendment to the food aid program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), voting 65-33 to defeat the proposal introduced by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.
Paul's amendment would have cut $4.5 billion of spending from the food aid program over the next decade and had proposed turning over funding decisions to the states while capping annual spending at $45 billion, ultimately saving the government $322 billion.
Despite the burgeoning national debt, attempts by some senators to reduce SNAP expenditures have so far been futile. Since SNAP is an entitlement, its budget is currently unlimited: When the government signs up more people, the money pours out. With a national deficit of more than $15 trillion that is burning a hole in the government's pocket, future generations will ultimately pay.
SNAP expenditures rocketed from $34 billion in 2008 to more than $50 billion in 2009, $64 billion in 2010, $71 billion in 2011, and $81 billion this year. Ten Independence Days ago, the food aid program cost $18 billion. Today's tally reflects a 450 percent jump-all within a decade. What happened?
In a report released in April, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) pointed to three main factors contributing to the drastic increase in SNAP expenditures: More SNAP beneficiaries, higher unemployment, and heightened benefit amounts. Behind these tangible factors lies a shift in mindset toward federal direct relief. Instead of allotting food stamps to low-income families as part of a temporary welfare program, SNAP benefits morphed into a middle-class entitlement (see "Food stamps surge," by Marvin Olasky, WORLD, Nov. 19, 2011).
President Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated welfare programs in the 1930s with the idea of temporarily boosting beneficiaries back onto their feet, naming it the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. Eighty years later, this direct relief from the government has not abated but spiked.
The Senate's overturn of Paul's bill garnered praise from many (including New York Times editorialists) who argue that reducing food stamp benefits would leave struggling families and children hungry. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think-tank organization that works on fiscal policy and public programs, called SNAP "efficient" and "effective."
The Center maintains that SNAP boosts the economy, stating that although SNAP spending has risen, increases are temporary and do not contribute to the nation's long-term fiscal problems. But in the absence of specific statistics on SNAP-related economic stimulus, the Center bases its prognosis on estimates and projections (such as the one from the CBO).
The CBO reported that it expects SNAP expenditure and participation to fall gradually starting in 2014, contingent upon hopes that the unemployment rate will decline and the economic situation will improve. Even so, the CBO added that the number of people receiving SNAP benefits will "remain high by historical standards," with SNAP remaining "among the highest of all non-health-related federal support programs for low-income households."
With one amendment proposing changes to SNAP already shot down, the time bomb on the national debt still ticks away.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.