In the year 2000, the number of Americans receiving benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — which was simply referred to as getting food stamps in a less politically correct era — topped out at just 17 million, at a cost of less than $18 billion to taxpayers. Today, the numbers have ballooned to a respective 48 million and $78 billion. According to a recent report compiled by Michael Tanner, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, the massive growth in food stamp recipients and cost has done little to help Americans in real need of food assistance.
In his recent policy analysis, “SNAP Failure: The Food Stamp Program Needs Reform,” Tanner outlines why SNAP is a deeply troubled government program with combined high administrative costs and significant levels of fraud and abuse.
While government officials have blamed the rapid growth of food stamp doles on the economic recession sparked after major financial institutions faltered publicly in 2008, Tanner asserts that a systematic lessening of eligibility requirements combined with an aggressive campaign to boost the number of food stamp recipients are more responsible for the rapidly growing number of Americans eating taxpayer-bought food.
Tanner writes in his report:
SNAP is jointly administered by federal and state governments, thereby giving states more leeway to set eligibility rules than with some other welfare programs. As a result, the program’s growth has varied significantly from one state to another. For example, since 2008, the number of people receiving SNAP benefits has doubled or more in Florida, Idaho, Nevada, Rhode Island, and Utah.
Of course, some of this increase could be considered countercyclical because welfare programs automatically expand during economic downturns, such as in the recent recession. However, increases in both participation and spending were bigger during this recession than in previous ones. For example, during the 1980–82 recession, enrollment in food stamps increased by only 635,000, and spending rose by just $124 million (in constant 2012 dollars). During the 1990–92 recession and jobless recovery, enrollment increased by 5.2 million, and spending rose by $9.1 billion. During the most recent recession (over a comparable three-year period), enrollment increased by 12 million people, while spending increased by $30 billion. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that about 35 percent of the program’s growth from 2007 to 2011 was caused by non-economic factors. This CBO estimate suggests that much of the increase was due to deliberate policy choices.
Barring the economic recession, Tanner outlines three main causes for the explosive growth of the number of American food stamp recipients in recent years: relaxed eligibility, increased government outreach aimed at signing people up for food stamps and an increase in the worth of SNAP benefits.
In terms of relaxed eligibility, Tanner notes that about 17 percent of Americans receiving food stamps have income levels above the poverty line. Furthermore, 56 percent of recipients remain on food stamps — an assistance program meant to be temporary — for a period of more than five years. Fewer than 10 percent of those who receive food stamps give up the assistance in six months or less.
As eligibility requirements have lessened, Tanner notes that the Federal government has simultaneously embarked on a massive outreach program designed to increase participation by those who are eligible.
From the report:
Federal and state governments now spend more than $41.3 million annually on advertising and outreach for food stamps, a six-fold increase since 2000. Some states have even hired so-called food stamp recruiters with monthly quotas of recipients to sign.
For example, Florida SNAP recruiters have a quota of 150 new participants per month, which may help account for that state’s tremendous growth in food stamp receipt.
Rhode Island, another state that has seen SNAP receipt double over the past five years, hosts SNAP-themed bingo games for the elderly. Alabama hands out fliers that read: “Be a patriot. Bring your food stamp money home.”
Food stamps, the report says, have also been heavily marketed in Spanish-language advertisements throughout the U.S.
“SNAP is no longer a program targeted at the poorest Americans who may need some temporary help, but it has become part of an ever-growing permanent welfare state,” the report contends.
Due to the 2009 Federal stimulus, the maximum monthly SNAP benefit from $463 for a family of three in 2009 to $526. As a result, CBO “estimated that 20 percent of the spending growth can be attributed to the benefit increases in the [stimulus act].”
While cost and enrollment associated with SNAP have both increased exponentially in recent years, the program’s effectiveness has not.
Tanner reports: “Despite the massive increase in SNAP spending and participation since 2000, the federal government currently classifies 17.9 million American households as ‘food insecure,’ that is, ‘uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all their members because they had insufficient money or other resources for food’ at some point during the year.
“Of these, 39 percent, or 6.8 million households were considered to have ‘very low food security,’ where ‘normal eating patterns of one or more household members were disrupted and food intake was reduced.’”
Beyond being inefficient, SNAP is also fraud ridden, according to the report, with $858 million in direct fraud in 2012 and $2.2 billion a year in erroneous payments.
According to Tanner, the bottom line is that the Federal government is using SNAP as a means by which to make as many Americans as it possibly can totally dependent on government.