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Republicans Want to Gut Our Most Effective Welfare Program

And they're using "states' rights" as an excuse

National enrollment in the SNAP program, which ballooned during the recession, has only just started to ebb as the country’s poorest find their footing. But it's not ebbing quickly enough for small-government Republicans. In recent years, food stamps have been battered by a series of cuts: an across-the-board 5 percent decrease in benefits in 2013, another round of cuts in the 2014 farm bill, and renewed work requirements for certain recipients that are expected to kick as many as 1 million people off assistance. In late February, the House Committee on Agriculture kicked off a “top-to-bottom review” of SNAP. In his opening statement, Chairman K. Michael Conaway pointed to the program’s high enrollment and complained that “while the economy has changed and other welfare programs have adjusted to meet changing needs, it does not appear that SNAP has.” Now, in the House Republican budget proposal released today, Republicans are taking another swipe at the food stamp program, this time with the usual GOP motivation of states’ rights.

Much like the four previous House Republican budgets, which were written by then-chairman of the Budget Committee Paul Ryan, the new House budget would change the federal structure of SNAP to a block-grant type program. While the details haven’t been fleshed out yet, the program is generally expected to give states a pre-determined chunk of funding per year instead of automatically adjusting the flow of money as need fluctuates. The budget doesn’t specify how much money blocking granting will save, but it has to cut some. It calls for $1 trillion in savings for mandatory programs not related to health or retirement—SNAP being the largest one. According to a CBO report released Monday, a 15 percent budget cut would lead to benefit cuts as high as $600 per year for the poorest food stamp-receiving households. Last year, the Ryan budget proposed cutting the food stamp program by even more—around 18 percent. 

From the House Republicans’ perspective, moving SNAP to the state level would reduce administrative cuts and bloat. In a promotional video released by the House Budget Committee, Representative Bruce Westerman said that their budget “will respect the principle of federalism by returning authority to state and local leaders… This will ensure more choices and responsiveness to every American.” In Ryan’s similar budget proposal in 2014, he estimated that the program could save $125 billion over ten years, simply because devolving the program to states would reduce administrative costs. But according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, more than 90 percent of the costs of SNAP flow directly into the EBT cards that recipients swipe at grocery stores—leaving less than 10 percent for administrative costs, employment training and education programs for beneficiaries, and a handful of other nutrition programs. Handing the program off to the states and assuming huge administrative savings is just passing the buck, says the CBPP’s Stacy Dean. “Just from a budget perspective, I object to assigning significant savings to the Ag. committee and sidestepping the responsibility of stating how to achieve them,” she told me.

The budget also claims that devolving the SNAP program into a block-grant-type program would make food stamps more responsive to communities’ needs, but the program is already highly responsive. The current program expands and contracts outlays automatically according to state and regional needs. According to a 2012 Congressional Budget Office report, the spike in food stamp beneficiaries since 2007 was primarily due to the economic downturn. As the Recession deepened, the rolls increased—which is exactly what’s supposed to happen. A separate report from the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2013 also found that food stamps and unemployment insurance protected vulnerable populations from poverty during the Recession. The Republican House Budget report criticizes the current SNAP program for measuring success on the “size of the budget” instead of “core functions and responsibilities,” but House Republicans are missing the point: the SNAP program, as it functions today, effectively performs its core function of adapting to fulfill the needs of hungry families.

The proposed cuts to the SNAP program are not guaranteed, as this budget must be reconciled with the Republican Senate's—but their proposal, which will be released later this week, is expected to suggest a similar block-grant-style restructuring to the SNAP program. Block-granting welfare has happened before: In 1996, Congress converted the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program—which provides cash, child care and other support to poor families—to a block-grant program similar to the one Republicans are proposing for SNAP. Now, 19 years and a recession later, grant amounts for TANF haven’t increased from those 1996 levels. The NBER report that found food stamps responded robustly to the downturn also discovered that TANF did not. "In the wake of the 1996 federal welfare reform, cash TANF (and, not shown here, all TANF) is a very small program and its reach and protection in cycles appears to be limited," the report says. The failure of TANF, which mostly benefits the poorest of the poor, meant that extreme poverty became more cyclical. Despite this ineffectiveness, Rep. Conaway lauded TANF in his opening statement, suggesting that Republicans would prefer SNAP to follow in that program’s footsteps.