How conservatives learned to love the federal food stamps program.

Commentary about business and finance.
Dec. 10 2010 2:15 PM

A Satisfying Subsidy

How conservatives learned to love the federal food stamps program.

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The benefits are hardly generous—working out to about $1 per meal per member of household. And the qualification standards are strict. In many states, families cannot have more than a few thousand dollars' worth of saleable assets. In most, they need to be within 130 percent of the poverty line, or $28,665 for a family of four.

Still, the food safety net does not come cheap: The government spends about $70 billion a year on the program. Most of that money goes straight into cash-strapped families' pockets and then straight to a grocer. That's why, from a broader economic perspective, food stamps are the single best form of government stimulus: Economists estimate that every $1 the government borrows to spend on food stamps generates about $1.80 in economic activity. It's a welfare program even a conservative—if not every conservative—can love.

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Under the Obama administration, the push for SNAP has continued, with a USDA initiative this spring to have retail outlets post signs reading "We Welcome SNAP Benefits." "Underscoring that SNAP benefits are welcome, rather than merely accepted, signals an important change in the way both retailers and program participants view these benefits," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.

So back to Idaho. It would be a stretch to say the highly conservative state promotes SNAP benefits. It is one of a handful of states that still calls them "food stamps." (In California, by contrast, the program is known as "CalFresh.") It is one of a handful of states that does not have a public awareness campaign about the benefits and makes no efforts to persuade folks to sign up.

But over the course of the recession, Idaho has made it easier for potential recipients to apply. Approval interviews for prospective recipients now take place quickly after applications come in. Wait time has fallen dramatically. And Republican Gov. Butch Otter supported making the program more accessible over the objections of his Republican-dominated legislature. In 2009 the state suspended the "asset test," wherein applicants to SNAP need to show that they have less than $2,000 in certain assets in order to qualify.

Of course, not everyone in Idaho is in love with the program. "The whole philosophy behind federal food aid is wrong because we are missing a good opportunity to teach people how to stretch their food dollars," one legislator said in response to the change. "We are instead teaching people to become reliant on the government for sustenance."

Nonetheless, Idaho has made it easier for Idahoans to benefit. And other states have done far more to promote the program in response to the recession, reaching out to families that might be eligible—particularly low-income working families and the elderly. "We actually don't know the participation rates yet, the proportion of people that could receive assistance that are receiving assistance," says CBPP's Dean. "But all signs are that the updated systems, reduced stigma, and improved outreach have allowed SNAP to respond to keep up with new entrants to the program."

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Annie Lowrey is a contributing editor for New York magazine. She can be reached at annie.lowrey@gmail.com.