I might feel better about the House Republicans’ food stamp block grant if Congressman Paul Ryan, who wrote it, were up front about the motive. Not more supportive, mind you, but less concerned — and angry.
It’s clear that the food stamp block grant, like the Medicaid block grant, aims to slash federal safety net spending. Savings on food stamp benefits, plus state administrative support would total nearly 20% over the first 10 years.
The objective here is to pare back what we’ve come to view as our government’s mission — and to offset the revenues that will be lost by the proposed tax cut extensions and expansions.
But the budget plan doesn’t justify the food stamp program that way. It relies instead of three big myths.
The first is that the safety net is likely to become — if it hasn’t already — a “comfortable hammock that lulls able-bodied citizens into lives of complacency.”
The second myth is that participation in the food stamp program is increasing at a “relentless and unsustainable” rate because states get more federal funds when they enroll people.
But, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows, the recession accounts for most of the recent uptick in food stamp spending. Costs, as a share of the nation’s economic output, will fall as the job market improves — because that’s how most of our better safety net programs work.
The third myth is that the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program has been a roaring success and thus should be the model for other safety net programs.
The “proof” cited by the budget plan, as by other proponents of this view, is that the “reforms” it initiated cut caseloads dramatically during the first five years, while poverty rates also fell.
Lots of factors account for both, including a strong economy that made it relatively easy for TANF parents to find work — though often not long-term work at living wages.
But TANF caseloads didn’t expand when the economy cooled in the early 2000s. And, as Legal Momentum reports, only 6.6% more poor adults and children were added to the rolls during the first 19 months of the Great Recession.
That’s not because TANF is so successfully lifting poor families out of poverty. It’s because states have incentives to minimize their caseloads — and the benefits they provide. One of the biggest is the declining value of the federal block grant itself.
They’d have this same incentive if they got a fixed, inadequate sum for their food stamp programs, as they would under the House budget plan.
The plan warns that “the poor and vulnerable will undoubtedly be hardest hit” if the federal government experiences a debt crisis due to runaway spending because the “only recourse will be severe, across-the-board cuts.”
Seems the House Republicans have decided to preempt these hypothetical future cuts by making severe, targeted cuts to safety net programs like food stamps now.