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If there was one thing that panelists agreed upon during the€™ recent conference on poverty in DC, it wa€™s that food stamps, officially known as SNAP,  has been a resounding success in preventing more Americans from falling into poverty. That's because SNAP is countercyclical, responding to need with spending. While welfare rolls remained flat during the Great Recession, SNAP enrollment nearly doubled, as it was supposed to. That's why it's puzzling that the new version of the House Farm bill, released from committee tonight, contains a SNAP cut over the next five years.

Food stamps are good policy because they have a multiplicative effect. In fact, it almost has double the impact. A USDA study finds that for "Every $5 in new SNAP benefits generates a total of $9.20 in community spending." 

It'€™s not as if the program is being overused. From 1995 to 2000, enrollment in the program dropped precipitously without a corresponding drop in the rate of poverty. Even during the current recession, in which enrollment doubled, only around 2/3 of eligible recipients took advantage of the program. The Brookings Institution speculates that this is because former welfare recipient are seldom informed that they remain eligible for food stamps. Brookings estimates €œ"in a typical month in 2001, 17.3 million people in 7.5 million households received food stamps at an annual cost of $20 billion." While that is nothing to scoff at, the annual pricetag is cheap for an effective social safety net. Particularly because it has a compelling societal purpose (preventing people from starving due to circumstances beyond their control) and is narrowly tailored to working people, usually with children.

Admittedly, the bill cuts a minuscule 2 percent from food stamps funding over the next five years. But still, during rough economic times SNAP is exactly the type of program that should be expanded rather than contracted.

When polling the public on issues of equality, Americans favor programs they perceive to promote equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcomes. For whatever reason, Americans are anomalously averse to the government ensuring equality of outcomes through redistribution, from "€œwinners"€ to "€œlosers."€ Regardless of the merits of that aversion, food stamps should be popular. Intended to ensure that children are not driven into abject poverty during a recession, SNAP certainly promotes equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcomes. With a record 37% of children under 5 at or near the poverty line, there is a good reason for the federal government to act. A child growing up hungry through no fault of their own has a dramatically diminished opportunities. It's hard to study in school when you're only thinking about your next meal.

There'€™s also a good reason that the Obama administration continues to try and increase food stamp enrollment while trimming government spending almost everywhere else. SNAP is a program that follows classic Keynesian economics. It meets need with muscle. It bolsters private demand by injecting cash directly into the market. And it distributes funds through state governments. Food stamps represent the best way to conduct stimulus in accordance with American values. National in scope and federal in implementation, SNAP has been an unambiguous success.We're in a period of unprecedentedly high levels of poverty, at least for the past fifty years. The poor need food stamps.

For more context about poverty in America, you should take a look at Demos' interactive visual of the past fifty years of poverty data. We should be acting now to reduce the unprecedented levels of poverty, and we have a program that has been proven to work.

Originally posted to Cup of Joe on Mon Jul 16, 2012 at 08:33 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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