The 2013 farm bill is currently working its way through Congress, and proposed cuts to food stamps are at the center of the debate. The Senate version calls for cutting $1.7 billion from this program over the next five years; the slightly more aggressive House version proposes cutting $9.6 billion. These cuts may sound like a lot of money in isolation, but they’re barely a haircut in the big picture. Congress should go further in seeking real reforms to food stamps.
To put these cuts in perspective, we should compare these cuts to the total amount of spending on food stamps. According to the May 2013 Congressional Budget Office baseline, the federal government will spend $394 billion on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program over this same five-year period. That means that the Senate version is a mere 0.43 percent cut, and the House version is a 2.44 percent cut.
We’re not talking about a lot of money here.
Both bills fail to make meaningful changes. Looking closer at the policy proposals, neither solves the main driver for the dramatic growth in food stamp spending. Although the down economy has played a small part, the main reason for skyrocketing spending has been state-based efforts to sweep people onto the program — e.g., removing asset tests and automatically enrolling people based on their participation in other specified government programs. Most of the proposed changes wouldn’t save any money — they have more to do with making a political statement and micromanaging people’s purchases.
Both versions include provisions to encourage buying locally grown fruits and vegetables. The bills also propose to prohibit food stamp benefits for lottery winners and ex-felons, and they reduce benefits for medical marijuana users. The House bill proposes prohibiting people from buying “substantial” bottle deposits with their food stamp benefits, in fear that they would return the bottles for cash and then spend the money on something inappropriate.
This isn’t what reform looks like — far from it.
This is government officials attempting to impose their preferences on people who get caught in the social safety net.
Unfortunately for American taxpayers, the Senate’s recent actions on the farm bill signal that it has no willingness to change U.S. food policy. Looking at the vote counts from this past week, senators rejected an amendment by Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., that would save $30 billion over the next decade, largely by closing loopholes that states use to expand eligibility. They also rejected an amendment by Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., that would turn federal nutrition programs into a single block grant for states. This proposal would give states more flexibility in adapting the program to their unique needs, and it would encourage them to spend the funds more deliberately. Both proposals represented important steps toward reform.
Many lawmakers on Capitol Hill remain opposed to any cuts whatsoever, saying that the program is needed to keep the low-income people from going hungry. But even if the cuts in the House or the Senate bill were enacted, the federal government would still be spending more on food stamps in 2014 than it is this year. And that’s not an argument against adding taxpayer protections to a program whose size has more than doubled since President Barack Obama took office.