House Republicans have begun to take steps in their long-awaited campaign against the welfare state. Their first move: expanding work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps.
It’s not surprising that this is where Republicans are starting. Over the past decade, conservatives have regularly lamented the surge of participation in SNAP following the 2008 financial crisis. The number of people in the program peaked in 2013 at 47.6 million, the highest ever. For those on the right, the trend symbolized President Barack Obama’s expansion of the welfare “hammock.”
They have a point about these numbers, but it’s only half right. They’re correct to be concerned that participation in the program remains much higher than pre-recession levels. But they’re dead wrong that work requirements are the solution. The problem is not that people in the program aren’t working; it’s that too many people in the program work and still have trouble getting by without government assistance.
Conservatives have long believed — despite persistently low unemployment rates and falling underemployment — that SNAP disincentivizes work and keeps able-bodied adults out of the workforce. Never mind that the vast majority of food-stamp recipients have jobs. Or that the number of working SNAP households has risen sharply over the past few decades. Or that only 4 percent of people new to the program stopped working after receiving their benefits.
If so many SNAP recipients are already working, the Republican proposal would have little effect, right? No. The proposal, introduced as part of the 2018 farm bill — which needs to be passed to keep the program going — would particularly hurt adults with children. Under current law, parents in the program have more relaxed work requirements, but the proposed framework would do away with that special treatment. And Republicans also would tighten the time frame that anyone would be given to find at least part-time work after applying for SNAP benefits from three months to one.
Preliminary estimates from the Congressional Budget Office say that the new rules would kick 1 million people off SNAP over the next decade. As other work requirements have shown, a good portion of the people who leave the program will do so because they can’t manage the bureaucratic hurdles of proving that they meet the requirements.
In other words, the Republican proposal is dishonest and terribly cruel. What’s new?
But the Republicans do get something right: SNAP should not serve as a permanent food aid program. The true value of the program is its role as an automatic economic stabilizer. When things go wrong and the economy goes south, SNAP is designed to automatically help low-income people brave the storm.
Our automatic stabilizers, which also include unemployment benefit programs and Medicaid, are way more efficient in an economic downturn than stimulus packages are. That’s because we know that this aid goes directly to the people who need it when they need it — and all without the political wrangling on Capitol Hill needed for spending packages.
But, crucially, the power of SNAP to help people in need is diminished if those people are already on the program when things go bad. It’s encouraging to see people leave the program as the economy continues to strengthen. But nobody should be happy that participation rates are as high as they are now, when the economy is relatively strong.
And why is that? Experts say stagnant wages and the movement of low-wage jobs into the service sector are to blame. Low-skilled workers today simply need more help to afford the basics. This is particularly true for parents working in the service sector, where they have to put up with irregular schedules with few or no benefits.
So a better solution to the food-stamp conundrum — and one that some Republicans might be able to get behind — would be making it easier for low-income people to get by without needing to take part in federal programs. That could include expanding the earned-income tax credit, once a pet project for House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) that has attracted bipartisan support in the past. Such a policy would also get closer to a negative income tax — the grand poverty solution advocated by conservative icon Milton Friedman.
Unfortunately, that brand of conservatism seems to be dying out. And in its stead rises a party that’s willing to thoughtlessly trample the poor for the sake of saving some money.