The Food Stamp benefit “cut”

As part of the 2009 stimulus plan, benefits for people on food stamps the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program increased up to 13.6%, and eligibility for the program for adults without children for whom they were responsible was expanded. That increase has now expired, but here’s how The New York Times characterized it:

The reduction in benefits has affected more than 47 million people like Mr. Simmons. It is the largest wholesale cut in the program since Congress passed the first Food Stamps Act in 1964 and touches about one in every seven Americans.

Emphasis mine. Note: the Times characterized the expiration of a temporary increase1 as “the largest wholesale cut” in the program. If you didn’t know what had happened, and didn’t read further down the article, why you’d think that those evil Republicans somehow reached in and cut benefits. In reality, the increases, including their temporary nature, were passed by a Congress overwhelmingly controlled by Democrats, and signed into law by a Democratic President.

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 reduced benefit levels, limited eligibility for non-citizens and able-bodied adults without dependent children, along with tightening enforcement regulations to reduce the number of cheaters receiving benefits. From the Department of Agriculture:

For most applicants, information had to be obtained from third parties, such as employers or landlords. Some applicants received unscheduled home visits, and some were fingerprinted. An ERS-sponsored study found that in 2000, applicants who were ultimately approved for benefits spent an average of 6.1 hours on the process and were required to make an average of 2.4 trips to the SNAP office. Prior to welfare reform, applicants spent an average of 3.9 hours and 1.6 trips to be approved for participation.

Another measure States took to reduce errors was to require households to reapply for benefits more frequently, particularly those households with employed adults. In 1996, 16.6 percent of working households were required to re-certify (that is, repeat the application process) every 3 months. By 2000, that number had nearly doubled to 31.8 percent. A 2003 ERS study estimated that increasing the portion of households subject to short certification periods (3 months or less) by 10 percentage points would lower the number of participating households by 2.7 percent.

In the years following welfare reform, SNAP caseloads fell 47 percent from 25 million people in 1996 to 17 million in 2000. Though the strong economy accounted for much of the decline in SNAP participation, evidence shows that policies that added burden to SNAP participation had an influence, as well.

I like that line: “evidence shows that policies that added burden to SNAP participation had an influence, as well.” That means, to me, that some for people on food stamps the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the small additional amount of work involved in applying for benefits outweighed the benefits that they thought they would receive. The increase in required application hours from 3.9 to 6.1 — a burden I would not classify as huge or overwhelming — or 2 hours and 12 minutes per application and recertification process was sufficient, according to the USDA, to reduce participation in the program. I guess that those applicants weren’t all that needy, were they? The USDA again:

Actions since 2000 have lessened the time and paperwork required to apply for and participate in SNAP. In addition, States were given more options to simplify and streamline their programs. Beginning with regulatory changes in 1999, the Federal guidance has been to encourage, but not require, States to make changes in how they implement the program’s rules to make access to benefits easier.

The Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 (2002 Farm Act), along with several pieces of legislation in the early 2000s, reversed some of the changes enacted under welfare reform and gave States more flexibility in managing SNAP implementation. The 2002 Act restored benefits to most legal immigrants, simplified the treatment of income, expanded options to reduce participants’ income reporting burden, and allocated funds for improving program access, participation, and outreach.One of the most important policy changes was targeted toward reducing the time that participants spent reporting changes in income and household circumstances. The “simplified reporting option” required States to certify households for at least 6 months and hold recipients accountable for only reporting to the SNAP office when their incomes exceeded 130 percent of the poverty line. By 2004, 33 States adopted this option, and the proportion of households with earned income subject to 3-month certification periods fell from 31.8 percent in 2000 to 2.5 percent in 2004. Econometric studies have confirmed a positive effect of these changes on SNAP caseloads.

In other words, a law passed under a Republican-controlled House of Representatives, Democrat-controlled Senate and signed by a Republican President made it much easier to apply for food stamps, and, in what should have surprised no one, people took advantage of it and more people started getting on food stamps!

It ought to be obvious: if people really need food stamps, they will do what it takes to get food stamps; those who are unwilling to take a couple extra hours every three months to get SNAP must not need them all that much.

The mentality of the bureaucracy is shown in the final sentence quoted: “Econometric studies have confirmed a positive effect of these changes on SNAP caseloads.” That means that, due to lowered eligibility confirmation requirements, social workers are having to spend less time on individual applications for SNAP. Less time spent on eligibility confirmation, and a huge increase in the number of people on food stamps, huh? Why, it’s almost as though an easing of the eligibility confirmation process has led to the skyrocketing number of people receiving benefits, sort of the welfare bureaucracy’s version of don’t ask, don’t tell.

The problem isn’t that the temporary benefit increase expired; the problem is that the eligibility requirements for SNAP were loosened, both in the income and asset thresholds for eligibility, and the requirements for applicants to prove that they were eligible. We shouldn’t be surprised that welfare rolls have exploded when we have made it easier to get welfare.

  1. USDA: “However, more substantial benefit changes were made by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA)–temporary changes intended to assist those in need and to stimulate the economy. The benefit changes, initially structured to be phased out gradually as food prices rose, are now scheduled to expire completely in November 2013.”

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