Food Stamps: Desperate Need or Double Dealing?
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The Fiscal Times
April 24, 2012

A Quincy, Mass., grocery store owner was arrested last week on criminal charges of engaging in a scheme with customers to trade federal food stamp benefits for cash.  This incident, one of many, adds more fuel to Paul Ryan's plan to reform the federal program, which has skyrocketed over the past decade from barely $18 billion in 2001 to more than $80 billion this year.

Ryan, the Republican House Budget Committee chairman, contends the food stamp program is rife with waste and fraud, and he unveiled a budget last month that would dramatically overhaul the program.  Last week, the House Agriculture Committee made the first big down payment on Ryan’s plan of reducing the deficit and averting deep cuts in defense by approving $33 billion in food stamp savings over the next 10 years that would knock two million people off the rolls and likely reduce benefits for 44 million others.

Government spending on food stamps and other “social safety net” programs for the poor, elderly and disabled generates considerable election year heat, especially in times of economic distress and soaring deficits. Former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich dubbed President Obama the “food stamp president” because the number of recipients has increased by 14.2 million during the past three years. Yet even more people were added to the program during the administration of Republican President George W. Bush.

Few doubt the vital importance of the food stamp program in helping millions of Americans to make ends meet and put food on the table. The challenge today for the White House and a sorely divided Congress is to balance reform, the needs of the working poor and others who have been unable to find a job in the worst recession of modern times. Yet lawmakers and policy experts appear to be so deeply entrenched in their views that it is hard to see how they will find common ground.

The House Agriculture Committee vote was largely symbolic because nobody thinks Senate Democrats would go along with such a draconian cut and Obama is opposed to sharp reductions in food stamps and other nutrition programs for the poor. Yet as Congress gears up this week to rewrite major farm subsidy and nutritional support legislation, the burgeoning food stamp program looms as a likely target for long term spending cuts.
For one thing, The Congressional Budget Office reported that 45 million -- one out of seven -- people in 2011 received Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, a 70% increase from 2007.

This is due in large part to the adverse impact of the recession, a temporary increase in SNAP benefits under the Recovery Act, and a change in how people qualify for the program. While critics complain about the program’s mushrooming cost and vulnerability to abuse and rip-offs, others credit SNAP with helping to counteract the spread of poverty during the Great Recession, putting food on the table of low-income families and encouraging the poor to find jobs.

Washington Editor and D.C. Bureau Chief Eric Pianin is a veteran journalist who has covered the federal government, congressional budget and tax issues, and national politics. He spent over 25 years at The Washington Post.