THE U.S. government's debt is high and rising. Major causes for this worrying fact include the recently enacted Republican- ­authored tax bill, projected to increase deficits by $1.5 trillion over the next decade, with most of the direct benefits going to higher-income people and corporations. One thing that's most certainly not driving the deficit is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides food aid for poor and near-poor families. Spending on SNAP, as it is known, has been declining because of overall improvement in the economy — from the recent peak of $79.8 billion in 2013 to $67.9 billion in 2017. The total five-year cost of the 2014 farm bill, SNAP's authorizing legislation, is now expected to come in $31 billion below initial projections, with 87 percent of the difference attributable to lower-than-­projected SNAP spending.

Yet the Trump administration wants to give SNAP a budget trim anyway. With a new farm bill due to be written this year, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has endorsed long-standing Republican calls for stiffening work requirements in the SNAP eligibility criteria, saying they might help save money. "It's evident that there are able-bodied adults without dependents who are on the food stamp program, who we believe it is in their best interests, and their families' best interests, to move into an independent lifestyle," Mr. Perdue said on Wednesday.

A similar mind-set led the administration to endorse state work requirements for Medicaid. How urgent is the problem Mr. Perdue identified? In truth, 65 percent of the 44.2 million SNAP participants in 2016 were very low-income members of demographic categories not generally expected to work: children under 18, elderly adults and disabled non-elderly adults. As for able-bodied working-age adults, they are already subject to certain work requirements; these are strictest for childless adults, who face a time limit on benefits (three months out of any 36-month period) unless they are met . Single, non-elderly childless beneficiaries get $185 per month, according to Agriculture Department statistics.

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Who then, are the SNAP recipients that might plausibly be of concern? There were indeed 3.5 million households composed of non-disabled, childless, working-age adults on SNAP in 2016. Most of them face existing work requirements, and, in fact, 1 million had earned income. About 600,000 qualified for some form of government cash assistance, state or federal. That leaves 1.9 million households that reported no income, earned or otherwise, suggesting that they were neither eligible for "welfare" nor worked. Yes, some few of these recipients may refuse work under any circumstances, but many more face educational, health and logistical obstacles to employment. And all of them are very poor.

To those offended by the fact that our wealthy society nonetheless pays to keep this tiny sliver of the population from starving, the question is: Are you really prepared to countenance the alternative?

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