7/1/2013 11:12 PM ET|
Food stamps feed costly political fire
Despite modest benefits and minimal fraud, the government's nutritional assistance program takes heat for supermarket splurges and sinking the farm bill.
The government's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has drawn more heat in recent weeks after its inclusion in the $1 trillion farm bill. Republicans' demands for deeper cuts to SNAP than Democrats would accept sank the bill entirely, with Bloomberg reporting the GOP is now considering splitting farm subsidies from SNAP to revive the farm bill.
Food assistance has been part of farm legislation since 1977, when Jimmy Carter was president. Since then, the number of participants in SNAP has almost tripled, from 17 million to more than 47 million. The program's annual cost has also more than doubled to $80 billion.
Splitting SNAP from farm subsidies, however, isn't making either farmers or proponents of food aid very happy. SNAP backers say it will not only lead to cuts for the program but reduce incentive to tie it to healthful, farm-based foods. The National Farmers Union, meanwhile, is trying to rehash the initial bill with a few compromises that should get it through. Farmers groups are also aware that without SNAP's help, their subsidies could plummet.
Neither group is heartened by comments from politicians such as Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), who followed up the farm bill's demise by retelling a constituent's story of watching a food stamp recipient in a supermarket checkout line pay for crab legs with an Electronic Benefit Transfer card.
"He looks at the king crab legs and looks at his ground meat and realizes," Gohmert said, "because he does pay income tax . . . he is actually helping pay for the king crab legs when he can't pay for them for himself."
As The Huffington Post notes, it would be a compelling story if letters to the editor featuring the same complaint didn't appear in The Columbus Dispatch in 1993 and in the Myrtle Beach Sun-News in 2007.
"It's definitely a meme. You hear it a lot," Elizabeth Lower-Basch, an analyst for the Center for Law and Social Policy, told The Huffington Post. "There's a lot of a-friend-told-me-she-saw type stories."
It also doesn't adhere to the numbers. A government survey from the late '90s found that meats accounted for 34.9% of food stamp purchases, grains 19.7%, fruits and vegetables 19.6% and dairy products 12.5%. Soft drinks made up 5.6% and sweets 2.5%.
While even SNAP supporters admit the system can't overcome bad choices -- like buying luxury foods that eat into a huge chunk of the roughly $120 per month that a food stamp recipient in Pennsylvania making $2,000 a month would receive -- it's not quite as flawed as leering supermarket critics would suggest.
Nearly a third of SNAP recipients earn money by working, and 91% have annual incomes at or below the poverty line. Most recipients are either children, elderly or disabled. Fraud such as SNAP trafficking, whereby recipients exchange cards for lesser sums of cash, has dropped from 4 cents per dollar of benefits in 1993 to 1 cent per dollar from 2006 to 2008, according to the Department of Agriculture.
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