Farm Bill Separation Meaningless Without Real Reform: Congress Must Reform Food Stamp Program

On June 20, 2013, something rather monumental happened: The House defeated the trillion-dollar food stamp and farm bill by a vote of 195 to 234.  Among the 234 in opposition were 62 Republicans, many of whom wanted the farm bill title to be considered separately from the food stamp title.

This was a decisive victory.

Had the bill passed, as the$955 billion Senate “farm” bill did, a compromise version would have likely landed on President Obama’s desk for signature.  Of course, he would have been eager to sign all this food stamp spending into law; food stamp participation has already doubled during his presidency, reaching over $80 billion a year in 2012.  After all, as Dan Holler noted, Mr. Obama considers food stamps an economic stimulus; but thinking of food stamps as an economic stimulus could not be further from the truth.   Money spent on the food stamp program comes from one of two places: taxpayers’ wallets or massive deficit spending.

Now that the so-called farm bill has been defeated, it is absolutely essential that the food stamp program undergo major reform.  Our CEO Mike Needham recently stated:

We are encouraged to hear reports that House Republican leaders are actively considering the separation of the so-called farm bill.  This is an important first step to restoring fiscal sanity and transparency to this debate, but it is only a step.  The reason to end this unholy alliance is to have an open, transparent debate on real reforms.  To be clear, the House should start over and pursue real, free-market reforms; simply holding separate votes on failed policy is nothing more than a different path to the same failed policies.

Two of his points are very important for lawmakers to understand.  First, with regard to increasing transparency, the House should have an open rule rather than a structured rule when they consider a rewritten, standalone food stamp bill and a standalone farm program bill.  The argument for separating out food stamps was always just a necessary first step to reform the process so that lawmakers have the ability to implement meaningful policy reforms.

Secondly, there are specific steps they must take in order to reform the food stamp title.  Heritage has written extensively on food stamps and has made excellent recommendations about how to reform the program.

Recently, Heritage advised Congress to convert food stamps into a work activation program.  Many of the households receiving food stamps today include able-bodied, non-elderly adults who perform no or little work.  Interestingly, low levels of work are not due to the recession “but are typical of food stamps households even during good economic times.”  Converting food stamps into a work activation program would promote self-sufficiency and personal responsibility.

Thus, the broad goal of any bill should be to require that food stamp recipients at least actively look for work as a prerequisite for obtaining food stamps.

Heritage has also laid out specific steps Congress should take to reform the food stamp program, which include drug testing, work requirements, concrete steps to reduce fraud, closing eligibility loopholes like “heat and eat” and, as a result, real spending cuts and caps on future growth.  (A thorough description of these steps can be found here.)

But lawmakers should be aware that these reforms are not just arbitrary or theoretical; they are modeled on the 1990’s welfare reform that proved so successful at reducing welfare rolls, helping children exit poverty, and boosting employment rates among recipients.  Interestingly, the food stamp program was not reformed in the 1990s like other means-tested assistance programs.  In fact, “it has remained basically unchanged since its creation in the 1960s.”  In light of our nearly $17 trillion debt and record participation, maintaining this outdated program is simply not a realistic option.

Liberal politicians – and self-proclaimed conservatives — have no legitimate basis on which to refuse reforms.  Think of this:

Means-tested spending amounts to $9,040 for each lower-income American (i.e., persons in the lowest third of the population by income). If converted to cash, this spending is more than sufficient to bring the income of every lower-income American to 200 percent of the federal poverty level (roughly $44,000 per year for a family of four).

Reforming the food stamp program is not optional.  Congress should not be an accomplice to President Obama’s “ruinous and unsustainable budget deficits.”  Heritage explains:

These deficits are in part the result of dramatic, permanent increases in means-tested welfare. An important step in reducing future unsustainable federal deficits would be to return total welfare spending to pre-recession levels.

To accomplish this, Congress should cap future aggregate welfare spending. When the current recession ends, or by 2013 at the latest, total federal means-tested welfare spending should be returned to pre-recession levels, adjusted for inflation. In subsequent years, aggregate federal welfare spending should grow no faster than inflation. This type of spending cap would save the taxpayers $2.7 trillion during its first decade.

Killing the trillion-dollar farm bill was an important first step toward real reform.  Now, Congress must protect taxpayers and the economy, and help those in need by encouraging personal responsibility, not by making food stamps a way of life.  President Obama helped make food stamps a way of life for a record number of Americans when he suspended the work requirement for able-bodied adults as part of his stimulus package.  Of course, that was just the latest in a long series of eligibility expansions that dramatically increased the size and scope of the program.

Lawmakers must implement these necessary reforms to the food stamp program and help undo the damage President Obama has done, not make matters worse.  Simply voting on a food stamp bill that mirrors what the House rejected is not a victory, it is simply another route to financial ruin.

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