By Neil Jurgensen
“There is nothing so permanent as a temporary government spending program,” Milton Friedman famously said.
You don’t need to be a Nobel Prize-winning economist to be alarmed at the exploding costs and enrollment in the country’s food stamp program. This once-modest program, originally set up to provide temporary assistance to the truly poor, has morphed into a massive runaway entitlement program that is grossly mismanaged, rife with fraud and badly in need of reform.
Unfortunately, Congress recently missed an opportunity to rein in this bloated program by passing a $956 billion farm bill that shows little fiscal restraint and only token reforms. The bill, which received bipartisan support, leaves food stamps virtually untouched, save for a 1 percent annual cut, which was achieved by closing the much-abused “heat and eat” subsidy loophole. Taxpayers have a right to be outraged.
In 2000, the food stamp program, now called the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP, had 17 million Americans participating at an annual cost of $18 billion. Today, enrollment has soared to nearly 50 million Americans at a cost of $85 billion. One in seven Americans is now on food stamps. That is a staggering statistic.
California leads all states in total food-stamp enrollment, with more than 4.2 million people receiving SNAP benefits (the program is called CalFresh in California). Santa Barbara County participation mirrors national trends, with more than 15 percent of households in the county participating. In North Santa Barbara County, which includes Lompoc and Santa Maria, participation rates have reached 29 percent.
In Ventura County, spending on food stamps has doubled since 2008, now totaling approximately $118 million per year. More than 71,000 Ventura county residents receive food stamp benefits, up more than 30,000 from just five years ago.
While the recession and slow recovery explain some of the escalation, the truth is that the massive expansion is the result of deliberate federal and state government policies.
Two previous farm bills — one in 2002 under President Bush, and another in 2008 under President Obama — expanded eligibility, increased benefits and simplified applications. President Obama’s 2009 stimulus bill added an additional 13 percent increase to benefits while relaxing work requirements.
Another contributor to the explosive growth is aggressive marketing by the Department of Agriculture and the states, including advertising, paid recruiters and federal bonuses paid to states for increasing enrollment.
Illegal immigration has also contributed to the exploding costs and enrollment. Though illegal immigrants are technically ineligible for SNAP benefits, all children born in the United States are automatically citizens and therefore eligible for food stamps, making the household eligible.
The structural problems, abuses and fraud within SNAP are numerous. Since there are no photo IDs on the electronic EBT cards used for redemption, benefits are routinely sold for cash, including on eBay and Craiglist. Work requirements have been relaxed and poorly enforced and asset tests have been waived by many states.
News reports show EBT redemptions taking place at ATMs in casinos, liquor stores and strip clubs. Many recipients fail to report pay raises or new jobs. SNAP-funded purchases are shipped overseas to relatives. Cash income goes unreported to welfare agencies.
Aside from the abuses, the more disturbing trend is long-term dependence. More than 50 percent of SNAP beneficiaries have been on the program for more than five years. Critics say the safety net has become a hammock.
When discussing reductions and reforms in SNAP, it also helps to remember that the food-stamp program is one of 12 federal anti-hunger programs offering assistance to low-income households. It is also one of more than 75 Federal poverty-relief programs. That’s not to mention the services offered by states, counties, municipalities, private charities and religious organizations. It is disingenuous, if not ludicrous hyperbole, to portray modest and responsible cuts in SNAP as devastating to the poor.
However noble or compassionate its original intentions were, SNAP is no longer a program serving only the truly poor.
Congress recently had a chance to address the problem. Lawmakers missed that opportunity, and the taxpayers will pay for it. Fifty million Americans on food stamps is a national disgrace. To this taxpayer, it doesn’t feel like compassion. It feels like theft.
• Neil Jurgensen is a freelance writer and former restaurant and hotel manager. Originally from Santa Ynez, he now splits his time between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles.