Tanner tackles food-stamp myths

Since the fight over food stamps seems to be holding up congressional agreement on a new farm bill, Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute examines in a National Review Online column some of the key myths associated with the food-stamp (or SNAP) program. (As an aside, Tanner notes wryly that “Unsurprisingly, the dispute is not over the bill’s completely unjustifiable subsidies for agribusiness (both parties support those) but food stamps.”)

Most of the handwringing is based on myths. Among them:

The massive increase in food-stamp spending was caused by the recession, so cuts are insensitive to economic reality. The food-stamp program certainly has exploded in the weak economic years since 2009, from 33.5 million beneficiaries at a cost of $53.6 billion a year to 47.7 million beneficiaries at a cost of $82.9 billion. Much of that increase was indeed due to the recession and increased unemployment. But the growth in food stamps actually started long before the recession began — under George W. Bush, in fact. President Bush nearly doubled both the program’s cost and the number of recipients.

In addition, studies show that the increase in food stamps was much greater during this recession than in previous ones, suggesting that at least some of the increase was due to policy decisions rather than economic conditions. …

Food stamps keep Americans from going hungry. It’s hard to imagine that the government could spend almost $83 billion per year without having some impact on hunger in America. Yet there is little real evidence that it does. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that “the literature is inconclusive regarding whether SNAP alleviates hunger and malnutrition for low-income households.” Similarly, a study for the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that for nearly all vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients assessed, the dietary intake among SNAP participants was comparable to that of nonparticipants in similar situations.

Food stamps are just a temporary safety net, not a form of dependency. No one wants to deny children, the elderly, or the disabled some temporary assistance to help them get through hard times. But the evidence suggests that for many recipients food stamps are becoming not a temporary safety net but a way of life.

Nearly 56 percent of SNAP households are on the program for five years or longer. And roughly 4.5 million recipients are able-bodied adults. In 2011, the most recent year for which data is available, only 27.7 percent of nonelderly adult participants were employed, while just another 28 percent reported that they were looking for work. Importantly, one of the largest “cuts” that Republicans have proposed is simply to restore the program’s work requirements.

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