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This is Why Food Stamp Reliance Has Exploded

This month, conservatives will return to Washington with the goal of making deep cuts to the nation’s food stamps program, or SNAP. For the most part, their rhetorical campaign against the program, which supports nearly 48 million Americans at a cost of $80 billion each year, has seized on roundabout arguments and beside-the-point criticisms. Last month, they circulated a hysterical critique of the program’s fraud rate—up 30 percent in three years!—which only increased from 1 percent to 1.3 percent from 2008 to 2011. Before that, it was some states' suspension of their work requirements—a time-limited measure which, in the throes of the recession, made an awful lot of sense.

Going into the renewed fight over food stamps, which Republicans prompted when they split the food stamp program from the omnibus farm bill to which it had long been attached, conservatives have dusted off their original criticism of the program: that enrollment has become “out-of-control.”  Robert Rector, a Heritage Foundation scholar, is identified in today’s New York Times as providing the bulk of the scholarship for this claim; as a response, he advocates tying food stamp assistance to measures like work requirements and drug testing.

But assailing the program merely because it is big and has gotten bigger ignores precisely why the program is so successful. (Plus, with stimulus provisions set to expire, SNAP is about to shrink regardless of Congressional action.) Enrollment in SNAP continues to closely track the country's poverty level. And although food stamps are associated, in conservative dogma, with laziness and voluntary unemployment, the majority of SNAP recipients who can work, do. Four of five program recipients are already working or belong to the 70 percent of program recipients who are not expected to work, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “primarily because they are children, elderly, or disabled.” Certain aspects of the program already function as strong work incentives—SNAP benefits don’t decline nearly as much as other government safety net benefits as households increase their income, and the program provides employment training. Attempts in the 1990s to impose work requirements and fraud reduction measures on food stamp recipients created onerous barriers even for families who qualified for aid. A report (which Jon Cohn dug up last year) by the Agricultural Department’s Economic Research Service found that new impositions kicked a huge percentage of eligible participants off the food stamp rolls.

Obfuscating attacks like these are necessary to any criticism of the program partly because SNAP is so popular, and partly because it addresses a distinct need, and it does this well. "SNAP kept about 4.7 million people out of poverty in 2011, including about 2.1 million children,” the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found in a 2011 study. “SNAP also lifted 1.5 million children out of deep poverty (defined as 50 percent of the poverty line) in 2011, more than any other government assistance program."

In that vein, today’s Times piece is clarifying. It is, besides a primer on the upcoming legislative fight, a snapshot of the individuals who rely on food stamps—who don’t buy milk or cheese, skip meals so their children will have leftovers, and who pencil the word “FOOD!” onto every month of the refrigerator calendar. One recipient, Dustin Rigsby, “a struggling mechanic, hunts deer, doves and squirrels to help feed his family. He shops for grocery bargains, cooks budget-stretching stews and limits himself to one meal a day.” It provides what may be the strongest argument against Republican attempts to erode the cornerstone of the government safety net: a moral one.

Molly Redden is a New Republic staff writer. Follow her @mtredden.

Image via Shutterstock.