WORKING FEVERISHLY after the deadline had passed, Congress last week saved the food stamp program from ending on June 1. We will not harp again on the question of why it was necessary to wait for eight months after the problem was identified to threaten several million poor people with hunger before making the money available. But before celebrating the end of the food stamp crisis, it might be well to note that the $2.56 billion provided last week with such flourish will not be enough even to last out the fiscal year. Chairman Jamie Whitten refused to appropriate enough funds to take the program through September, so it is almost inevitable that another down-to-the-wire funding crisis will occur toward the end of August. The Senate conferees tried to provide $3 billion, in order to last out the year, but were rebuffed by the House. The conferees have stated that they plan to come up with the additional $400 million. Sometime.
Food stamps are an entitlement. That means that costs will change with the vagaries of what is right now a very uncertain economy. If more people are laid off in the next few weeks than now predicted, claims for food stamps will increase. If claims are not made as predicted, the money will go back to the Treasury. So in the short run, it seems to us wiser to err on the side of generosity.
There is in some quarters a certain inclination to examine whether this sort of program could be brought more under budgetary control. But if this effort is to be made, it should start from scratch and not simply involve setting a continuing series of caps on the funds available and then being surprised when economic changes push the costs up. The program was designed to be counter-cyclical.
The appropriations committees will have to move quickly to ensure that September's ration of food stamps will be forthcoming. The drama will be less gripping if action is taken now, but we suspect that food stamp recipients around the country would be willing to forgo the excitement. Once was more than enough.