HAVE YOU noticed how spending on welfare and other benefits for the poor is bankrupting the federal government? Neither have we. On Monday, the Congressional Budget Office forecast a vast increase in the federal debt over the next decade, due in large part to the GOP’s recent $1.5 trillion tax cut, most of which goes to businesses and wealthy households. On the domestic spending side, the biggies remain middle-class programs such as Medicare and Social Security.
Yet President Trump and the Republican leadership in Congress are on an election-year campaign to “reform” means-tested safety-net programs. The day after the CBO released its figures, in fact, Mr. Trump ordered federal agencies to review all such programs — with an eye toward toughening work requirements for their recipients. On Thursday, the House Agriculture Committee unveiled a proposed 2018 farm bill that would make it harder for non-working adults to get food-buying aid under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
The U.S. welfare state, such as it is, has always linked benefits to work more than its European counterparts. In many cases, that is necessary and appropriate, both as a way to prevent waste and as a way to incentivize productive behavior. The GOP says its current focus is in this tradition: It’s more about fighting “dependency” than balancing the budget. Maybe so, but it puts a lot of needy people’s benefits at risk for what’s likely to be very few dollars saved and very little behavior modified.
Work requirements make the least sense with regard to Medicaid, the largest means-tested program by far, at $565.5 billion in spending in 2016. Sixty percent of recipients already work, and 79 percent already live with a worker, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Many other recipients have caregiving responsibilities; these would be either abandoned or accepted by states as the equivalent of work, after much bureaucratic hassle. In any case, losing Medicaid would not stop people from getting sick; they’d just go to emergency rooms for treatment, ultimately at public expense.
As for SNAP, spending is already down — from $79.8 billion in 2013 to about $70 billion in 2017 — thanks to a robust economy. The total cost of the most recent five-year farm bill, SNAP’s authorizing legislation, is now expected to come in $31 billion below initial projections, mostly because of lower- than-expected SNAP spending. The House Republican farm bill is aimed at able-bodied, childless, working-age adults, who account for a very small portion of the overall SNAP caseload and many of whom already work. About 1.9 million childless, working-age adults got SNAP without working in 2017. Referring to people such as these, the Agriculture Committee press materials on the new bill say it “does not take away eligibility, but provides individuals options. Individuals may choose not to participate, but they will no longer be eligible for SNAP.” Sounds great, except that many non-working adults who rely on SNAP aren’t refusing to work but face multiple and stubborn logistical and educational barriers to employment. In the likely event those barriers continue, it will be SNAP administrators who face “options”: find a way to keep them on the rolls, or let them go hungry.
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