The goal of safety-net programs in the United States must be two-fold: To help lift people out of poverty, and to protect the most vulnerable among us — including in Clark County.
The Trump administration’s desire to reduce the number of people eligible for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program — colloquially known as food stamps — would not promote either of these goals. Instead, it would cut holes in the safety net, increase vulnerability and, evidence suggests, harm the economy.
This impact would be felt throughout the country. In Washington, according to the state Department of Social and Health Services, an estimated 175,600 residents would be affected annually — including more than 5,000 in Clark County.
From a moral standpoint, this should generate outrage; it is appalling for the world’s richest nation to have an epidemic of citizens unable to afford basic necessities such as food. From an economic standpoint, this should generate concern; researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimate that for every $22,000 of federal spending on food stamps from 2001 to 2014, one job was created, with food assistance typically being spent quickly. Considering the billions of dollars that have been poured into the economy through public assistance, that spending was essential to propping up the economy during the Great Recession.
Republicans in Washington, D.C., long have sought to shrink the safety net for Americans. Last year, they tried to cut the SNAP program by $17 billion over 10 years; in 2013, they attempted to cut it by $40 billion over 10 years, at the same time they were expanding farm subsidies. Now the administration has proposed tightening eligibility requirements.
One trope used to justify these cuts revolves around the idea that the rest of us have no obligation to our fellow Americans. It essentially offers some worthless advice for those who are struggling — “Don’t be poor.”
Another argument is that the SNAP program is rife with fraud. As Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times writes: “Republicans and conservatives long have been consumed with the fancy that hordes of Americans are moving heaven and earth to obtain SNAP benefits fraudulently. It’s not as if there’s a pot of gold at stake: The average monthly benefit currently stands at $134.85 for an individual, which works out to about $4.50 per day or $1.50 per meal.” According to the Congressional Research Service, about 5.19 percent of SNAP benefits were overpayments, but only 11 percent of those resulted from fraud. The rest were the result of errors by agencies or recipients.
As debate continues over the use of public assistance, several states have taken steps to increase work requirements for recipients. SNAP already requires recipients who are not disabled and have no children to work 80 hours a month or meet other requirements. The same goes for most other assistance programs when it comes to able-bodied recipients. Meanwhile, undocumented immigrants are ineligible for most forms of public assistance.
Indeed, the social safety net must be combined with free-market principles that encourage people to work and to take personal responsibility for their situation, and it must be combined with rigorous enforcement to prevent fraud. But a proposal that would remove SNAP benefits for an estimated 3.1 million Americans would be harmful to the economy and unnecessarily cruel.
Sending more people to food banks would not meet the goals of the nation’s safety-net programs.