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By Tom Cushing

Food Stamps Food Fight

Uploaded: Dec 14, 2012

As I wandered the web a few days ago, this dust-up between CNN correspondent Soledad O'Brien and Senator Jeff Sessions caught my ear: . I'll admit that my preconceptions include the suspicion that the Senator's heart could cut glass. That said, the issue did arise repeatedly in the Presidential campaign, and Mr. Sessions seemed to be making serious claims about both the remarkable growth of the program and its potential for fraud – items not fully addressed by Ms. O'Brien's inquiries and rejoinders. If, indeed, 1-in-6 Americans receives this form of assistance, then like the Pentagon in last week's epistle, it ought to occupy our budgetary attentions. The results of some digging follow, below.

The first revelation to my sheltered existence was that these are not stamps at all, but the pre-loaded "EBT" cards that are a grocery store payment option. Also, the program is now referred-to as SNAP ("supplemental nutrition assistance program"). It is the product of an uneasy mixed marriage between rural agricultural and so-called urban poverty interests, first conceived in the latter 1930s as a win/win way to help draw down food surpluses and relieve victims of the ongoing Great Depression. As such an offspring, it has suffered an ongoing identity crisis – is the program intended to be a transitory hand, or a more permanent assist to the working poor? That first iteration was the former, and it was ended in the full-employment era of the 1940s. When it resurfaced as an element of the Great Society in the 1960s, and through several program permutations since then, it has tended to be more like the latter – offering long term help to job holders on the low-end of the pay spectrum.

To be eligible, a family must make no more than 130% of the current poverty rate, or about $24,000/year for a family threesome. There has traditionally also been a work criterion, requiring that able-bodied adults in the household be employed, at least 30 hours/week. Its restriction to use only for food purchases allays concerns that direct monetary aid might otherwise be squandered on riotous living.

The Bush2 Administration broadened eligibility and benefits (for which Senator Sessions voted, before deficit hawklyness was in vogue). Program costs doubled during his terms, rising from $19 billion to $39 Billion/year by 2008. During the first Obama term, it has more than doubled again, with 2012 costs estimated at $85 Billion. Even so, it is hardly the stuff of sumptuous dining, with the average subsidy/meal being about $1.50. 80% of benefits are used in the first half of each month.

So, the 4X growth comment passes muster -- where'd all that new growth come from? Two sources, apparently – one of them obvious, and the other a bit more subtle. First and likely foremost, the rise in recipients has closely tracked the unemployment rate, especially after the "work" rules restrictions were relaxed to accommodate jobless folks -- at least while local unemployment rates exceed 10% (thus the return of the transitory help model, grafted onto the basic program). Second, the program has traditionally been under-subscribed by about half, as qualified individuals have not signed-up. That rate has fallen to around 28% through recruitment efforts, greater need and perhaps less of a stigma attaching to the program during hard times. That means that costs should fall as the economy improves, but there's always the danger that the program's expense will "defy gravity," as some government programs tend to do.

Now, what about all that WFA (waste/fraud/abuse)? According to the USDA and administering states, both trafficking (selling the cards for cash) and ineligibility fraud are relatively rare. Trafficking is said to be at less than 3% and falling, with strong enforcement deterrence. Those states also conducted more than 800,000 eligibility audits in 2011, resulting in about 40,000 expulsions from the roll. That's a fair sampling for an ongoing audit program, and even if we assume a random selection of those investigated (one would hope for better targeting), that's less than a 5% mistake-And-fraud rate. Audit is a necessary program element, especially as/whenever the economy improves, but not a big source of current potential savings.

In sum, it turns out that Senator Sessions' concern about SNAP is founded much deeper than the current budget imbroglio. It goes to that identity issue, and whether long term assistance to the working poor is a good policy idea. He has spoken repeatedly about the "moral" problem of creating a permanently dependent underclass; he'd prefer a system of private charity ("Thank you, sir – may I have another?"). He is counter-balanced by those who find food to be the very most basic form of relief, and a greater moral problem in denying bread to the mouths of children. Non-profits in the field are certainly overwhelmed, already.

My own SNAP judgment is that Food Stamps is a pretty well-run program of well-targeted assistance – it's doing what is appropriate and intended, and its cost will likely recede as times improve. SNAP does not deserve much of a role in the budget negotiations, and it is very far from the worst place my tax dollars flow.

For reference: Contra Costa Food Bank Perhaps readers have other options, as well?