On Friday, August 16th, The Weekly Standard punctuated a tumultuous couple of weeks of attacks on the SNAP program by reporting that food stamp trafficking is up 30% between 2008 and 2011. After a recent Fox special blasting the program for all kinds of fraud and abuse, the report could not have been welcome news for the USDA, who administers the program.
Few Americans begrudge a safety net for the truly needy although there is some difference of opinion on whether the federal government should be involved. Regardless, we currently do have federal programs and with ballooning national debt and means-tested entitlements at an all-time high, these programs have come under intense scrutiny, primarily from Republicans.
The GOP is correct in pointing out that programs are paying out more than we can afford, with more American receiving assistance than ever before. In addition, spending on social programs is far and away the largest part of our budget, consuming almost 3 times as many federal dollars as even the military budget, which is the largest in the world. Since our military budget is over 8x as big as the second largest (China) the spending on social programs must be addressed if we are serious about any kind of fiscal responsibility.
The Fox News special, entitled The Great Food Stamp Binge, generated the usual partisan rancor on both sides of the political fence. For the right, the problems highlighted in the report are a reminder of record spending on entitlements and the increasing debt from overspending, while for the left it was just another attack on the poor.
In 2001-2002, recipients of food stamps from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) were at lows not seen since the late 70’s but during the Bush administration, participation increased steadily from 18 million to around 28 million. But by far the largest increase has been under President Obama, growing from 28 million in to 47 million or nearly twice as much in half the time. Some of that likely came as as a result of the recession and funding for more was included in the 2009 stimulus package (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) as President Obama relaxed requirements for participating in the program. However, it also appears that there are organizations such as the New York City Coalition Against Hunger and even the USDA are actually marketing the program in a way that borders on the type of recruiting that is against the rules. In some states it has even become policy to hire “recruiters” with monthly quotas for new enrollees. These kind of efforts seem to go beyond the boundaries of good intentions.
Disability claims have also been rising steadily since 1997, including veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq, who are filing for disability benefits at a historic rate. Marilynn Marchione of the Huffington Post reported in May:
A staggering 45 percent of the 1.6 million veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are now seeking compensation for injuries they say are service-related. That is more than double the estimate of 21 percent who filed such claims after the Gulf War in the early 1990s, top government officials told The Associated Press. What's more, these new veterans are claiming eight to nine ailments on average, and the most recent ones over the last year are claiming 11 to 14. By comparison, Vietnam veterans are currently receiving compensation for fewer than four, on average, and those from World War II and Korea, just two.
Has most everything we do to earn a living, from working a typical job to serving in the military really become more dangerous and less treatable than ever before?
Part of the reason for the increase in these programs may be participants jumping from one program to another. President Bill Clinton pledged to “end welfare as we know it” and with a GOP Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act in 1996. The Act provided temporary financial assistance while aiming to get people off of that assistance, primarily through employment. Clinton’s “Welfare-to-Work” ideas along with the Temporary Assistance to Families in Need (TANF) has played a much smaller and decreasing role in helping poor families than it’s predecessor, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AIDC).
Even while poverty has continued to rise, TANF caseloads and the program's role as a safety net have diminished, suggesting that potential recipients are may be simply finding their way to other more generous programs.
Fox’s reporting admittedly neglects the positive side of the story that most people understand and support. In fiscal year 2011, 45% of SNAP recipients were children and 9% were elderly according to the USDA. Of the almost half of the single-person households receiving help, 27 percent were elderly, nearly 24 percent were nonelderly disabled individuals and 28% had zero gross income. As Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama commented during a Binge interview, “there’s nothing wrong with poor people who need help getting help.”
But with the skyrocketing participation and subsequent cost, concern has also increased about waste and fraud, along with the philosophical opposition to proverbially feeding a man instead of teaching him to fish. Federal spending on the program has disproportionately increased at an even greater rate than participation, from around $15 billion annually in 2000 to nearly $93 billion today.
While the CBO predicts spending on the SNAP program will start to decrease soon, greater scrutiny of all programs seems more than reasonable. Spending as a percentage of GDP on some programs was projected to go down but that may be about to change or in effect, see-saw. Rachel Sheffield and T. Elliot Gaiser of the Heritage Foundation wrote in May:
...food stamps are just one of roughly 80 federally funded means-tested welfare programs. The total cost of government welfare spending has been on a nearly continual climb over the past five decades and has increased 16-fold, to nearly $1 trillion annually, since the 1960s. Welfare is the fastest growing part of government spending, and under Obama’s fiscal year 2013 budget, total welfare spending will permanently increase from 4.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) to 6 percent of GDP.
There are certainly specific issues with individual programs that need to be addressed. The Heritage Foundation also reported that “application loopholes and policy changes over the past decade or so have allowed recipients to bypass income and asset tests, meaning many people are receiving food stamps who would not have been eligible under the program’s original purposes” including automatic eligibility based on already receiving other benefits and other broad-based acceptance standard relaxation.
Many on the right believe Democrats have little incentive to scrutinize the system significantly since recipients largely seem to vote Democratic. A constituency that wants “more free stuff” is a special interest in and of itself and some support for these programs in their current form smacks of LBJ’s infamous comment “I’ll have those n**gers voting Democratic for 200 years.”
Democrats counter that freeloaders are small in number and being stereotyped by Republicans who want to punish poor people rather than take anything from their own wealthier base. Both sides may have an element of truth and no one is solving the problem for many reasons, starting with Democratic denial that a significant one even exists and instead, touting the programs as “stimulating the economy.”
Unfortunately, the GOP seems to talk largely about wholesale cuts rather than reform and in many cases, continuing to ignore other areas such as the military which are equally bloated, along with even more hypocritical maneuvers aiming at gutting programs that help the poor while preserving subsidies for others, including themselves.
Scrutinizing any program and controlling fraud and waste is necessary but without finding effective solutions beyond an indiscriminate chopping block, there is no guarantee that serial abusers skilled at gaming the system will continue to do so while those truly in need will be hurt the most.
The most perplexing part of a lack of long-term solutions is solving the problems doesn’t have to involve developing anything radically new; in fact we have a great one in our own history books.
At the height of the depression and long before the establishment of current means-tested entitlement programs, FDR found a way to get Americans working again. The Works Progress Administration took people who were unemployed and put them to work on infrastructure. Later called the Works Projects Administration, policy changed in 1940. Although, labor unions had previously vetoed any proposal to provide new skills under the auspices of already having too many unemployed skilled workers, the WPA later added vocational educational training of the unemployed.
The WPA was effectively put to rest by WWII and officially closed down in 1943. In 1960 LBJ started a more modern version of entitlement programs under the “Great Society,” partially a continuation of JFK’s “New Frontier” with a more New Deal-like agenda. The Great Society's programs expanded under Nixon and Ford administrations and many programs have continued to the present including Medicare, Medicaid, and federal education funding. The Great Society's programs expanded under the administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.
Social programs have been effective in many ways, helping to decrease poverty substantially and most Americans agree with Jeff Sessions about the truly needy. Lee McMillan, a local businessman in Ashe County, NC, told Fox News that the overly aggressive marketing of SNAP benefits to an area historically devoted to self-reliance was unwelcome but also stated clearly that “if it all falls through the cracks and these people cannot get food and they need it to feed their children, I think the government should help them.”
The problem with expanded benefits is that we are spending a disproportionately higher amount and with diminishing returns. Larger programs are increasingly wrought with documented fraud and that doesn’t take into consideration things such as bona-fide laziness, all while the expenditure takes a larger and larger chunk of the federal budget.
Nicholas Eberstadt commented in the Wall Street Journal,
As Americans opt to reward themselves ever more lavishly with entitlement benefits, the question of how to pay for these government transfers inescapably comes to the fore. Among policy makers in Washington today, it is very close to received wisdom that America's national hunger for entitlement benefits has placed the country on a financially untenable trajectory, with the federal budget generating ultimately unbearable expenditures and levels of public debt. The bipartisan 2010 Bowles/Simpson Commission put this view plainly: ‘Our nation is on an unsustainable fiscal path.’
We can argue endlessly about the financial and emotional costs, real or imagined, of programs contributing to a larger debt and a diminished work ethic. To be certain, there is not nearly enough of JFK’s famous “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” and as much as some people refuse to acknowledge the truth, there are undeniably scenarios in which it can be more lucrative to work the system than to work.
Simply put, it’s time to bring back the WPA. On every level where means-tested entitlements are received, there is no reason that the vast majority of able-bodied Americans shouldn’t be working and for those who are less capable, jobs can be found for many of them as well.
The beauty of the program is that it doesn’t require nearly as much additional spending as starting from scratch since benefits are already being paid. Unlike the program under FDR, when the spending was entirely new, the current pending for what would be anticipated labor costs is largely already occurring in the form of payments and with modern technology, administrative overhead could be kept to a minimum.
A variety of projects could be used to employ workers at almost any skill level. This would not only allow us to move much faster on everything from infrastructure projects to environmental cleanup, it would provide a strong incentive for the unemployed to move back into the private sector.
In addition, disability benefits could be administered with stronger case management. Many people who may be disabled in some way might be able to do less demanding clerical work. Others might be able to do simple cleanup or tasks that are more suited to individual strengths and weaknesses.
On-the-job training and additional learning could also help workers to get back to the private sector in better position than when they began or to help build management in the program to better assist the implementation of future programs and projects.
Not everyone has fallen into the same trap: Texas seems to have the right idea in some respects, with a program structure more along the lines of the philosophy Clinton espoused. Ian Dille of The Texas Observer reports:
While states can waive the requirement that participants are either employed or seeking employment, Texas does no such thing. All able-bodied Texas food stamp recipients between 18 and 59 must either work, be looking for work, or be engaged in job training for thirty hours each week. And adults without dependents are barred from the program if they work less than twenty hours a week for longer than three months in any three-year period.
Food stamp benefits used to have similar restrictions: Under Clinton and “Welfare-to-Work,” the program put into place guidelines where an able-bodied adult could only 3 months every 3 years unless working a 20 hour week or participating in a job training program but President Obama suspended those rules in the Stimulus and extended the suspension afterward.
With a work program, these guidelines become immaterial. Bringing back the WPA is a win-win situation for the American taxpayer and Congress by putting an end to a fruitless cycle of dependency whether the number of people currently stuck in the system is greater than Democrats will admit or fewer than Republicans suspect. It can help put an end to con artists who use the system to facilitate illegal activities, such as trading food stamps for drugs or other trafficking as mentioned in The Weekly Standard's story.
It can also help reduce the endless bickering in Congress about cutting social programs since they will no longer be a one-way street. Finally, it could reverse the consequences of fluctuating requirements in many of the programs that have helped escalate the number of recipients and taxpayer expenditures.
It remains a mystery why common sense solutions such as the WPA continue to elude our representatives in Washington. The WPA is a historically proven way to put the unemployed back to work helping our country on a local, state and national level. One can only wonder why this isn’t already being seriously discussed.
It’s time to do something that would make JFK proud and reform the system so that a helping hand is a two-way street, and a long-term solution instead of a temporary one. While we don’t always agree on the methodology, most Americans believe we have a moral obligation to help those truly in need and/or cannot take care of themselves. We also have a moral and pragmatic obligation to stop enabling those who are not. Failing to address this problem jeopardizes our ability to help those who are and more importantly, continue being able to pay for everything we hold dear that holds our country together.