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.

Cashier smiling at customer on checkout line at a grocery store. Click image to expand.
Demand for the SNAP program has increased nationally

Of all the numbers quantifying this recession, few can match the grim precision of 42,911,042. That's the number of Americans, mostly children and the elderly, who used food stamps in September—521,428 more than in August, itself a record month, and 12 million more than in September 2008. In the past year, according to the Department of Agriculture, every state has seen its rolls swell—with increases ranging from 5.1 percent in West Virginia to 28.7 percent in Nevada.

Then there is Idaho. Enrollment in the state's program  soared nearly 40 percent year-on-year, 10 percentage points more than in any other state. What gives in potato country? In one sense, the jump is expected, given the economic fundamentals. Unemployment sits at 9.1 percent—lower than the national average, but eons away from the 2.7 percent rate the state saw just before the recession hit. Idaho has also suffered a catastrophic housing bust, causing billions of dollars of wealth to evaporate.

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But there's another reason for the soaring growth: Idaho has made it easier and quicker for residents to apply. The recession created an explosion in demand for the benefits now known as SNAP, for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. But that explosion in demand just happened to coincide with a decade-long sea change for the program, now seen as efficient and effective—the lean machine of the social safety net.

The story starts in the Clinton days, when welfare reform spurred the stigmatization of support programs from food stamps to welfare to WIC. The occasionally toxic rhetoric on welfare payments (remember Reagan's mythic welfare queens in pink Cadillacs?) sometimes found its target in the food program. Though President Bill Clinton supported expanding food stamp participation rates, his own Department of Health and Human Services boasted that new food stamp rules would promote the bipartisan goal of "ending the dependence of needy parents on government benefits." The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996—welfare reform—tightened eligibility rules. Between 1996 and 2000, with stricter rules and a booming economy, participation rates plummeted.

Fast forward two years. President George W. Bush appointed Eric Bost as his undersecretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services at the USDA, and the two went on a quiet crusade to expand eligibility, increase enrollment, and reduce stigma around nutrition aid. In 2002, for instance, Bush announced his support for letting legal immigrants apply for benefits, and he pushed the provision into the farm bill—granting about 300,000 more people eligibility at a multibillion-dollar federal cost. Bost also expanded the size of and outreach for SNAP, "reflecting the administration's commitment to the nutrition safety net"—no mention of welfare there. In negotiations around the 2008 farm bill, the Bush administration took a final, fateful step to reduce stigma and pull the program into the 21st century. The USDA officially rebranded food stamps as SNAP benefits, with a focus on nutrition rather than free food.

The cocktail of rising unemployment, stagnant wages, eased access to support programs, and purposeful destigmatization during the Bush administration meant that rolls swelled—from 17 million when he took office to 28 million when he left. That caused some consternation among conservatives. But the administration pushed back. "I don't have any problems with those programs growing, and indeed, they were intended to grow," Ron Haskins, a Bush adviser, told the Associated Press in 2007.

Why might conservatives come to the benefits' defense? In part, because among government safety-net programs, food stamps are a model of efficiency. Welfare is not great at getting people to work. Disability insurance too often goes to people who are not actually disabled. Unemployment insurance (not a welfare program, but a safety net nevertheless) tends to increase the duration of unemployment. But food stamps are great at reducing hunger while also, for instance, helping local businesses, improving student grades, and reducing the likelihood a family will go on a more expensive program, like welfare.

Moreover, waste, fraud, and overhead costs are low, comparatively. During the Bush administration, states completed the move to a new debit-card payment system, an initiative started under Clinton. Practically overnight, that cut by one-third overpayments, underpayments, and payments going to the wrong household. The accuracy rate is now about 95 percent, and overhead costs are down to 10 percent—low, given that case workers do in-person interviews with every recipient. "Accuracy has actually reached record highs, despite the fact that so many more people are applying due to the recession," notes Stacy Dean of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

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.

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.