Food stamp cuts could help the poor – NorthJersey.com
Perhaps the most controversial element of the Trump administration’s budget is the proposal to reduce Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamp) spending by 25 percent, or $193 billion, over the next decade. Forty-four million people receive food stamps, more than twice as many as at the end of the Clinton administration. Spending for food stamps almost quadrupled in the same period, reaching $70 billion last year.
Food stamp enrollment skyrocketed during Barack Obama’s presidency because the administration believed that maximizing handouts would maximize prosperity. “Every $5 in new (food stamp) benefits generates as much as $9 of economic activity,” stated a White House report.
So the feds bankrolled food stamp recruiting campaigns. A North Carolina social services agency won a “Hunger Champions Award” for attacking “mountain pride” as a reason to avoid government handouts. In Alabama, taking food stamps was marketed as patriotic. And the administration effectively suspended the three-month limit for able-bodied adults without dependents to collect food stamps.
From 2008 to 2010, the number of able-bodied recipients doubled, according to the Congressional Research Service. The Food Stamp Poster Boy of 2013 was Jason Greenslate, a 29-year-old surfer who declared that he avoids work and uses his monthly food stamp allotment to purchase as much sushi and lobster as $200 can buy. Then it’s off to the beach. Greenslate touted his gourmet purchases “all paid for by our wonderful tax dollars … It’s free food. It’s awesome.”
Trump budget director Mick Mulvaney declared last month: “If you are on food stamps and you are able bodied, we need you to go to work.” The Trump administration proposes phasing in work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents.
This is a good first step for a program that swayed too many Americans to work less. Studies have shown that single mothers, married fathers and families across the board work less when they are on food stamps.
The Trump administration also proposes requiring state governments to begin covering a share of the costs of food stamps, in addition to the share of administrative costs they already pay. Currently, state governments have little or no incentive to police the program because losses from fraud or waste don’t come out of state budgets. Unfortunately, such an idea is likely dead on Capitol Hill.
The most important reason to curtail food stamp enrollment is because the program is a dietary disaster. Walter Willett, chair of Harvard University’s Department of Nutrition, observed in 2015, “We’ve analyzed what (food stamp) participants are eating and it’s horrible food. It’s a diet designed to produce obesity and diabetes.”
A 2017 study published in BMC Public Health found that food stamp recipients were twice as likely to be obese as eligible non-recipients, confirming a government study from 2015.
It is easy to understand why. A 2016 Department of Agriculture report revealed that soft drinks and other sweetened beverages are the most common purchase in food stamp households, accounting for almost 10 percent of monthly expenditures. “Desserts, salty snacks, candy and sugar” account for another 10 percent.
The Trump reform proposal ignores the easiest way to save more than $100 billion: prohibit using food stamps for junk food. Food stamps should be remodeled along the lines of the Women Infant and Children Program, which distributes coupons redeemable only for relatively healthy foods. A 2014 Stanford University study concluded that prohibiting the use of food stamps for sugary drinks would prevent 141,000 kids from becoming fat and save a quarter million adults from diabetes.
Carpet-bombing people with subsidized calories can cause collateral damage. Young children in low-income families are more than 50 percent more likely to be obese than those in other families, according to a 2016 report.
Republican and Democratic governors and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg pleaded with the USDA to allow them to restrict soft drinks; the USDA said no.
There are hungry children and adults in this nation, and the government can assist them without subverting private work ethics or public health. But there is no constitutional right to free junk food. Trump’s proposed food stamp reforms are a clean break from the Obama-era fantasy that handouts will make America rich.
James Bovard, author of Public Policy Hooligan, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.