IT SEEMS LIKE only yesterday that the Ford administration set out to curb the soaring costs of the food stamp program. In those days, there were 15 million participants in a program costing about $5 billion. Now, thanks to rampant inflation and some liberalizing program changes, there are over 22 million participants and $11 billion in costs, and once again "reform" is on an administration's agenda.
Any proposals for substantial cuts in food stamps should be viewed with considerable suspicion. We are, after all, talking about taking benefits from the very poor -- 87 percent of food stamp participants have total income lower than the subsistence level defined by the official poverty line. The law does allow families with higher incomes to participate, but few such families bother to apply for the relatively small benefits they would receive.
Food stamps are also the only benefit available to all the poor in all parts of the country. About 50 percent of the participants are female heads of families and their children; 13 percent are aged or disabled. Given the importance of food stamps to our poorest citizens, the reported recommendation that benefits just be cut off for a few months to save money is gross and unthinkable.
There are, however, some other proposals apparently being considered by the administration that deserve serious consideration. These include combining welfare and food stamp administration for the large number of people who receive both, requiring regular income reporting, cutting out the overindexing of benefits legislated for next January and adopting a more sensible food plan for Puerto Rico, where a flood of food stamp benefits has apparently sent food prices soaring. And there is no reason why food stamp allotments should not be reduced to take account of actual savings to families from their children's participation in the free school lunch program.
As for work requirements, the current regulations are already pretty tough on paper for the relatively few recipients to whom they apply. Making them work is another thing. Short of actually providing jobs, as Rep. Paul Findley suggests elsewhere on this page today, it is very hard to make people find jobs, and administrative costs may exceed savings in most areas.
The biggest single cost-saving item, however, would be the proposed increase in the food stamp "benefit reduction" rate. Currently, each dollar a participant earns (in excess of allowed deductions) reduces his food stamp benefits by 30 cents. The proposal would raise this to 35 cents. One objection is that the proposal would further reduce incentives for the poor to work, a seeming inconsistency with the supply-side ethic of the Reagan tax reformers. A more fundamental ground for concern is that the proposal amounts, in simplest terms, to a $1 billion across-the-board reduction in benefits for virtually all food stamp participants.
Is this a fair sacrifice for the poor to make to the cause of tax reduction? Until we see much larger contributions by better-heeled groups, we are not ready to say that it is.