In Our View: Nuances of Welfare

While House GOP's severe plan is D.O.A., talks on spending, self-reliance are vital

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While many commentators in recent days have portrayed House Republicans as callous and draconian for proposed cuts to the federal food stamp program, the reality requires a more nuanced analysis.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — commonly known as food stamps — has more than doubled in costs over the past five years, to the point where $78 billion is paid out annually to recipients. Much of that was the result of a horrific recession, which increased the number of people requiring financial assistance and led to SNAP simply doing what it was designed to do — helping those most in need.

Yet it is at that point that the discussion becomes a philosophical one. While we can measure our values as a nation based upon where we spend our money, we also must question how reliant we wish to be upon the government.

Many of those currently receiving food stamps were added to the rolls when the federal government relaxed eligibility requirements in 2009 in the midst of the recession, and one recent study by economists Peter Ganong and Jeffrey B. Liebman suggested that 18 percent of the increase in expenditures was due to those new rules. Whatever the cause, more than 47 million people — about 1 in 7 Americans — benefit from food stamps.

Because of that, the Republican-led House last week approved cuts of about $4 billion a year over the next 10 years to the program. The cuts would require adults between 18 and 50 without minor children to find a job or enroll in a work-training program in order to receive benefits, and estimates are that it will remove those benefits for 3.8 million recipients.

"This bill eliminates loopholes, ensures work requirements, and puts us on a fiscally responsible path," said Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind. "It's time for Washington to measure success by how many families are lifted out of poverty and helped back on their feet, not by how much Washington bureaucrats spend year after year."

Stutzman, and the other House Republicans, are largely engaging in rhetoric designed to pander to their base of support. The Senate has proposed cutting about $400 million a year from the food stamp program — one-tenth of the cuts passed by the House — and President Obama is certain to veto the larger cuts should they land on his desk. In other words, the reductions proposed by the House will never come to pass.

"We're debating an extreme bill with no chance of becoming law," said Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash.

Which returns the discussion to the philosophical realm rather than the practical one, and that is a realm in which history provides a guide.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton and a Republican-led Congress combined to, as the president said, "end welfare as we have come to know it" by passing the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. By adding workforce development to welfare legislation, the law reinforced long-held American values of giving people a hand up rather than a hand out; of using work to better your station in life; and of viewing government assistance as a temporary stopgap rather than a way of life.

Current House Republicans have invoked Clinton's welfare reform in defense of their cuts to the food stamp program, and there are some legitimate connections to be made.

While the House cuts to the food stamp program are unlikely to ever become reality, they do serve as a launching pad for important discussions about the nature of government spending and self-reliance. And such discussions require some nuance.