Modest Food Stamp Cuts Are Long Overdue

The House of Representatives recently voted to cut the “food stamp program by $39 billion over the next 10 years, while reforming the program to tighten eligibility and emphasize the importance of work.” As the Cato Institute’s Michael Tanner notes, the “outcry among congressional” liberals and administration officials in response to the vote “is just plain silly given how modest” the cuts are. As he observes, these cuts “simply trim around the edges of the program,” which has mushroomed from $18 billion to $82 billion since 2000. As he points out, far from imposing draconian cuts, the House vote leaves spending at historically high levels, and merely curbs recent abuses and egregious loopholes that have caused costs to explode over the last few years:

Aggregate Spending will still remain at elevated levels even with these cuts. Even with the additional cuts (totaling $39 billion), average outlays from 2013-2023 will be almost $73.5 billion, which is more than $5 billion more than outlays were in 2010 (they were $68.3 billion). . .

Almost all of the savings come from returning to traditional SNAP rules or ending loopholes. . . The Republican plan would also eliminate the so-called LIHEAP loophole, which allows states to increase benefits for individuals who also receive utilities assistance under the LIHEAP program. Approximately 16 states have used this loophole to leverage nominal (as little as $1) LIHEAP payments into an increase in households’ SNAP benefits. Republicans would require states to provide LIHEAP benefits of at least $20 in order to qualify for the exemption, preventing them from manipulating the system to increase federal payments.

While the cuts are a good start, they should go further and substantially trim the amount that most recipients get per month. Food stamps are so generous that it is baffling that anyone would oppose cutting them, unless they’ve never actually bought groceries while bargain-hunting. As someone who used to live on rather little, I think it is a prime area to cut. Even when I later worked in a law firm, I generally spent less on food than people receive on food stamps.

Food-stamp recipients themselves have said that people can eat healthily on far less than a food-stamps budget. As one noted, he spent more money on food while on food stamps than he did before becoming unemployed and going on food stamps:

As a family of four (me, wife, two kids) we got around $550 for food per month (~$140/person per month). This was far more than we were spending before we ended up on food stamps and more than we budget for food now that I am employed again. We bought milk, not soda, and meat, not canned food, and we had enough to build up some food storage as well. The idea that there just isn’t enough money from food stamps and people are forced into making poor food choices is flat wrong in my experience. I can see if a family insists on eating prepared food every day for every meal, or regularly uses EBT to buy take-and-bake pizza, they may run into some problems due to the convenience premium that is priced into those products. But it is well within a food stamp budget to buy healthy ingredients and make your own food.

As another noted, some food stamp recipients can afford even expensive luxuries: “I’ve seen people purchase $20/pound wild caught fresh salmon.”

Even back in 2007, when food stamp spending was much lower, The Washington Post featured a story in its health section about how various people, such as a natural foods store owner, were able to live quite well on a food stamps budget. For example, Rick Hindle, an executive chef, showed “that you don’t have to spend hours in the kitchen to prepare healthful food for $1 or less per meal.” People were able to spend less on food than the poorest food stamp recipients and still enjoy a healthy, low-fat diet rich in vitamins. That’s what a Quaker vegetarian found, even though he ate only organic food (which costs more than non-organic).

There is also plenty of waste and fraud in the food stamp program that needs to be cut. Food stamp fraud has risen into the billions, and even wealthy people have become eligible for food stamps in some states as the federal government rewards states for expanding eligibility to people who don’t need them. (Meanwhile, as James Bovard noted in The Wall Street Journal, “The Obama Administration is . . . cracking down on state governments’ antifraud measures.”)

Cutting food stamps has become more politically difficult in recent years, due to the fact that record numbers of Americans (and American voters) are now on food stamps.