The fate of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) is still up in the air, but a funding reduction of at least several billion dollars is looking more and more likely. Now that the Senate has passed a Farm Bill which cuts $4 billion out of the program and the House has passed a much larger $39 billion reduction, a bicameral conference committee will have to somehow split the difference.
During last week's debate on the House floor, Republican members of Congress repeatedly defended the proposed $39 billion cut as a "common sense" solution to out-of-control food stamp spending.
"This is a common sense reform that cuts waste, fraud and abuse, leaving more money for the Americans who truly need help in time of need," said Republican Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland, summarizing the GOP case.
The party's "poster boy" for these accusations of "waste, fraud and abuse," according to the Huffington Post, is Jason Greenslate, a 28-year-old Californian whose story was recently featured on Fox News. Greenslate is happily unemployed and reportedly uses his food stamps to purchase extravagant meals such as lobster; Republicans like House Majority Leader Eric Cantor claim that the California surfer is living proof that food stamp spending can be dramatically reigned in without hurting the truly needy.
But Greenslate is one man, and the legislation which passed the House would cause a projected 3.8 million people to lose food stamp eligibility in the first year alone. Greenslate has almost nothing in common with the vast majority of those SNAP recipients, according to Stephen Pimpare, a professor social work at Columbia University, NYU and CUNY.
"We're inhabiting a moment right now where we've got just shy of 50 million Americans on food stamp rolls," Pimpare told MSNBC.com. "An extraordinarily broad range of individuals. And in that 50 million, are there people who we would identify as improperly receiving benefits? Sure. [...] The relevant question is, what do we know more broadly about the way the program functions?"
Food stamp disbursements kept an estimated 4 million people above the poverty line in 2012, according to a Census report released last week. Looking at households which received SNAP funds in 2011, the USDA found [PDF] that nearly half of those households included children, and a little over one-fifth included disabled, non-elderly people. Although federal law includes a work requirement for food stamp recipients, in the last year alone 45 out of 50 states [PDF] were granted a waiver on that requirement due to high unemployment.
The House bill would save an estimated $19 billion by eliminating that waiver, such that non-disabled, childless adults who wanted to receive full SNAP benefits would have to either work at least 20 hours a week or enter a federally approved job training program. Those who failed to meet the work requirements would only be eligible for three months of SNAP benefits every three years. The result: An estimated 1.7 million would see their benefits disappear in 2014, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
But don't expect any of those 1.7 million people to rejoin the workforce, economist Stacy Dean told MSNBC.com.
"Unemployment is still elevated, but more importantly we're not creating jobs as a country," said Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). "This whole argument rests on the notion that we have excess jobs, that we are in a very tight labor market, and we don't have enough people to fill available positions."
SNAP recipients can also satisfy the work requirement by entering certain kinds of job training programs, but those are also scarce. States without waivers don't necessarily run the sort of job training programs which would meet federal requirements.
"At this time, there is no new money for job training, and there is no requirement that states offer you a slot" in any job training program, said Dean.
As for the "fraud and abuse" so often denounced by Republican legislators, there is little evidence that it has a statistically significant effect on the program. Between 2009 and 2011, only 1.3% of food stamps were illegally trafficked, according to the USDA's own research [PDF]. Such trafficking is often done more out of desperation and necessity than avarice, according to Pimpare.
"That kind of fraud is not an effort to cheat or deceive or manipulate the program for any reason other than trying to better manage exceedingly scarce resources," he said. Food stamp recipients typically traffic their disbursements by trading them to store owners and managers for "a very expensive cash advance," often between 75 cents and 95 cents on the dollar.
While that advance cash may be spent on things like servicing a drug addiction, "it's much more typically families living right on the edge, who need to buy things like diapers, which you cannot buy with food stamps," said Pimpare. In other words, lack of money for non-edible necessities is the cause, not overly generous SNAP disbursements.