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After poverty tour, Ryan proposes cutting food stamps

The Ryan plan's food stamp reforms would cut between $135 billion and $150 billion over 10 years, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Paul Ryan
House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, (R-WI). speaks at the Conservative Political Action Committee annual conference in National Harbor, Md., on March 6, 2014.

The release of a new Ryan budget proposal has become an annual Washington tradition, and there is little in the substance of this year's offering to distinguish it from prior editions.

If anything makes the 2014 version of the Ryan budget special, it's the timing: Rep. Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, has spent the past several months cultivating a new public image as an anti-poverty crusader, culminating last month in the release of a 200-page report on the federal safety net. Whereas previous GOP budgets had been the product of a self-styled economic policy wonk, this year's proposal is the work of a self-styled champion of the poor.

Hunger is one of the greatest challenges facing America's poor. Food insecurity — defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as the inability to access "enough food for an active, healthy life" — shot up in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse, and has never returned to pre-recession levels. Currently, 49 million Americans, including 8.3 million children, suffer from food insecurity, according to the most recent USDA estimates.

So how does the new and improved Rep. Paul Ryan, scourge of poverty, plan to revamp the anti-hunger safety net in the face of historic levels of food insecurity? By cutting food stamps.

The 2014 Ryan budget includes plans to institute more stringent work requirements for food stamps and convert the program from a federal entitlement into a system of block grants. While the plan itself is short on specifics, the non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) estimates that the suggested changes could slice anywhere between $135 billion and $150 billion out of the program over the next decade.

"The only way to get to those savings is to reduce the number of people eligible for the program or to reduce the benefit levels they're eligible for, or both," said Stacy Dean, CBPP's vice president for food assistance policy.

Under a block grant program, the federal government would give each state a set amount of food stamp funds per year, and the state would decide how to distribute them. According to Ryan's budget blueprint, this would allow state governments to customize the program so it best fits the needs of their citizens. Yet Dean says block granting would actually make the program less flexible.

"When the economy is weak, the program expands to respond to need, and when the economy improves, the program shrinks," she told msnbc. "And that's one thing a block grant undercuts, the program's economic responsiveness."

When the Great Recession dramatically increased food insecurity in the United States, the food stamp program expanded to meet growing hunger. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of people on the program increased by 77% — something which would not have been possible if states only had an annual lump sum out of which to distribute benefits.

By contrast, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families — a block granted cash assistance program created by President Bill Clinton's 1996 welfare reforms — barely grew at all during the recession, in spite of skyrocketing demand. The program's caseload rose by only 16% in the two years following the crash, even as the ranks of the unemployed grew by 88%, according to the CBPP. TANF, as the post-1996 welfare program is known, hasn't even managed to keep up with inflation: Even as the value of the U.S. dollar declined by about 30% between 1997 and 2012, the size of the basic TANF block grant remained frozen at $16.5 billion per year.

Block granting food stamps is not a new idea — far from it, in fact. President Reagan made the proposal 30 years ago, as part of his administration's overall push to block grant enormous swaths of the federal safety net. The modern Republican Party has resurrected the proposal several times over the past few years, including in prior Ryan budgets.

"This really is the same old, same old snake oil poison that will kill you instead of heal you," said Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. "Claiming to reduce poverty by taking away poverty funding is like claiming to reduce drought by taking away water."

But he also directed his ire at the Democrats who voted for a significant cut to food stamps in February as part of a compromise with Republicans. The latter party, he said, is "obsessed with food stamps," and was never going to be satisfied with the compromise.

In fact, more proposed food stamp cuts are probably on the way, not including what's in the Ryan budget. After several governors announced plans to stop the recent food stamp cuts from taking effect in their states, House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, suggested he might take further legislative action to enforce the planned cuts.