The Truth About Food Stamps

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Sept. 25 2013 4:55 PM

The Truth About Food Stamps

Eli Saslow had one of today's lead stories in the Washington Post, a lengthy profile of Florida Rep. Steve Southerland and his (thus far successful) quest to cut spending on SNAP -- on food stamps. Earlier this year Saslow published compulsively readable stories about a Rhode Island town that depends on SNAP, and about the workings of a food dispensery program for poor children, so it feels like the Southerland piece will end up in a Pulitzer package. (A colleague reminds me that Saslow was a finalist for 2012.)

Liberals are unhappy with the story, mostly unfairly. Southerland, a class of 2010 member who hung on pretty narrowly in 2012, comes off as a well-meaning naif who believes he's evolved from worry about growing dependency to a self-taught expertise. He enlists the help of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum to sell his plan, which would introduce 20-hours-a-week work requirements for the food stamps recipients who could pull it off, hopefully spending less money by attrition; he's pessimistic that anything can come of working with Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern, his crusading liberal archfoe. It's a good story, but it leaves an important fact implied without explanation.

Southerland’s food stamp proposal, which on Thursday the House narrowly voted to approve, would require able-bodied adults to work or volunteer at least 20 hours each week in order to receive government food assistance. “It’s the simple solution,” he said in March at a news conference introducing the idea. But in the months since, he has learned that no idea is simple in Washington, especially not one that would fundamentally alter a program that has tripled in size during the past decade, growing to support a record 47 million people at a cost of $80 billion each year.

Ah -- "the last decade." Go find a chart of food stamp usage and the surge looks more recent. In 2003, around 22 milion Americans were on food stamps. In 2008, it rose to 28 million. From then to now, the years of the phony economic recover, it rose to 47 million. Would the end of the recession lead to a drop in usage? We're only told in the context of the heated floor debate over Southerland's amendment.

He said food stamp spending was “growing into oblivion”; Democrats said it would decrease just as quickly once the economy improved.

"Democrats said!" That wording ends up making Southerland look like he's naturally right about this.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at daveweigel@gmail.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.