Editorial: Thoughtful reform needed on food stamps

  • Posted: Thursday, September 5, 2013 12:01 a.m.

More people are on food stamps today than ever before.

The program has been pushed to unprecedented levels with more than 47 million Americans now receiving benefits, according to the agency that oversees it, the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In South Carolina, more than 800,000 depend on the program each month, costing taxpayers about $1.3 billion annually.

Created decades ago, the program is aimed at tackling poverty, but unfortunately, has seemingly changed from one that rose and fell with the unemployment rate to a more permanent feature of society.

The Congressional Budget Office, for instance, predicts unemployment will gradually drop in the next five years, likely below 6 percent by 2017, but that will not coincide with a significant dip in food stamps. By 2022, the office projects the program will be among the highest of all non-health-related federal support programs for low-income households.

The biggest factor in the recent upward swing of food stamps has likely been the sluggish job market and the rising poverty rate.

But even with projected upswings in our economic future, the number of Americans on food stamps is not expected to see a strong corresponding decrease.

The value of the program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, should not be in doubt. However, it logically should shrink as the economy improves. That doesn’t appear to be the case anymore.

Thankfully, food stamp fraud has diminished, according to the Department of Agriculture. Exchanging benefits for cash is illegal, and cracking down on that practice must be aggressively sought.

SNAP has certainly helped to get people back on their feet and even saved lives as families face dire economic circumstances.

But as government spending continues to grow and the national debt becomes not only an economic, but a national security issue, measures need to be introduced to ensure the level of food stamp benefits parallels the health of the economy.

The qualifications for receiving benefits have actually been eased in recent years.

According to the Wall Street Journal, applicants previously could be disqualified if they had $5,000 in the bank, or earned slightly more than the poverty threshold. Under changes in the 1990s, that’s no longer the case. The 2009 stimulus law also expanded the program, allowing people to keep benefits longer than in the past, but those expanded benefits are set to expire on Nov. 1.

Both the U.S. House and Senate have introduced cuts to the food stamp program. House leaders proposed a 10-year, $20 billion cut to the food-stamps program as part of a farm subsidy bill, but the measure failed. House Republicans have reportedly expressed interest in cutting the program by $40 billion over the next 10 years.

Slashing a program without much thought that fights against hunger in an anemic economy would be misguided. However, strategic and gradual reform needs to be implemented.

The Congressional Budget Office projects that reinstating earlier eligibility limits would save the country about $4.5 billion over 10 years, a small, but needed change.

Reducing food stamp fraud and nudging the qualifications numbers down as the economy improves is a must for future generations.

Americans don’t dream of being on food stamps. Proper reform will hopefully ensure that remains the case without increasing hunger and hardship.

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