Policymakers for 30 years have taken multiple runs at reducing the nation’s annual budget deficit and reining in its long-term debt. An admirable constant in many plans and legislation: a commitment to shielding the food stamp program from the worst effects of the budget ax.
That humane, sensible philosophy has generally continued into the most recent budget-reduction era. Not every road map to reduce red ink has safeguarded this program, which provides surprisingly modest monthly assistance to senior citizens, the disabled and the needy. But authors of this decade’s most respected deficit-reduction plans — Simpson-Bowles and Domenici-Rivlin — have pointedly done so. The rationale: The nation has the capacity to address its borrowing problems without taking food off the tables of its most vulnerable citizens.
There’s an argument to be made that the failure to adopt a version of these respected plans and reach a so-called “grand bargain” on the federal budget in recent years has led to the current, out-of-the-national-character targeting of the food stamp program. Congressional Republicans have proposed cutting $20 billion out of the $80 billion-a-year program over the next decade, which could “eliminate benefits to nearly 2 million low-income people,’’ according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). U.S. House Republicans have also split off food stamps funding from its traditional inclusion in the farm bill, increasing uncertainty about the program’s future funding.
With both political parties rhetorically pulling big-ticket items off the table that are needed to yield meaningful savings — defense cuts, tax increases, Social Security or Medicare reforms — there are few options left to trim as politicians grapple with the nation’s structural deficits. The troubling proposed cuts to the food stamps program — now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — are evidence of how much the nation’s political leaders have boxed themselves in on budget policy.
Most deficit hawks, however, have historically supported the SNAP program, whose modern incarnation is the result of bipartisan work by former Sens. George McGovern and Bob Dole. As this venerable program comes under scrutiny, it’s worth remembering why it’s long been considered an unproductive irresponsible place to cut — and should continue to be regarded that way.
• SNAP is not a long-term driver of the nation’s debt. The number of people on SNAP is at historically high levels, but it went up because of the Great Recession and the slow recovery. Enrollment declines as the economy improves. Spending on the program is projected to decline to 1995 levels as a percentage of GDP by the end of this decade.
• Benefits are modest enough that they keep people from going hungry but don’t discourage work. The average recipient got $133 a month last year, an amount that supplements earnings but doesn’t replace them. Data also suggest that very few of those who are working when they enter the program quit working after receiving benefits.
• SNAP benefits are spent quickly, boosting the bottom lines of local retailers and the economy. A $1 increase in SNAP benefits yields $1.70 in economic activity, the CBPP said.
• SNAP benefits truly help the nation’s neediest, and cutting off benefits doesn’t spur people to go back to work. Almost two-thirds of those served are kids, the disabled and the elderly. They can’t simply just go get a job. Many people in the program are also already working, but still don’t make enough to pay their bills.
Evelyn Shelafoe, 75, of Maplewood is an example of those whom the program helps. She fell on the ice last year as she walked to her job as a grocery store food sample lady, and can no longer work.
Shelafoe currently pays about half her income for her prescription medications. While her SNAP benefits don’t go far, they’re enough to allow her to eat fresh fruits and vegetables. She’s worried that cuts may cause her to lose her benefits, and while she understands the need to rein in spending, she said that food assistance shouldn’t be part of that. “I don’t know what I’m going to do if they take it away.’’