AMONG THE hundreds of Senate and House conferees meeting this week to iron out the differences in their budget reconciliation bills, one groups is looking at the food stamp program. Food stamps -- a major target for some legislators who view the program as the worst of the welfare state -- were marked for a cut of almost $1.5 billion in the controlling budget resolution so that a reduction of at least that amount is now a certainty. Both the Senate and House bills, however, substantially exceed that savings goal as the result of last-minute additions that are both unwise and unneeded.
In the House, where the adminsitration pushed through its unexamined budget substitute, the final product contained a previously undiscussed provision to raise the benefit reduction rate -- the proportion of recipients' income that is subtracted from the food stamp allotment they would otherwise receive. Since almost all recipients, no matter how poor, have some cash income, this amounts to an across-the-board cut in benefits totaling almost a half-billion dollars when fully in force in 1984. A few dollars in food stamps a month may not sound like much of a loss, but it will be sorely missed by a mother in Mississippi, let us say, trying to support three children on the maximum welfare grant of $120 a month.Even a couple living on a $5,000 a year Social Security benefit would find a $100 yearly loss in food stamps more than a minor inconvenience.
The Senate addition would further reduce benefits to the working poor by limiting work expense deductions to an amount much less than studies show they actually incur. This will not only hurt some very needy families but also add considerably to the severe work disincentives built into the welfare cutbacks elsewhere in the budget package. Under the welfare changes, most recipients who are trying to achieve self-sufficiency will, after four months of work, have less spendable income than they would have had if they quit working. Many will lose medical benefits as well. This is shortsighted and unfair policy that surely needs no further aggravation from the food stamp program.
It could be argued that, once again, food stamps are being asked to compensate, at least in a small way, for the terrible inadequacy of welfare programs for families. But welfare, thanks in part to an almost vengeful attitude on the part of the administration, seems a lost cause in the current climate. By contrast, while the food stamp cutbacks are severe, the harshest sorts of reductions have been averted by a coalition of legislators spanning the political spectrum from left to right, in both houses, who recognize the program's real importance. Food stamps are, no doubt, difficult to administer. Some abuse is inevitable and, however small it is in relative terms, it is an irritant to other hard-pressed shoppers in the grocery lines. The program is, nonetheless, the most basic and demonstrably helpful form of assistance to the nation's least favored citizens -- and it deserves to be protected.