Should food stamp recipients be required to work?

Some House Republicans are pushing that notion. However, the majority of able-bodied recipients already have jobs.

By Aimee Picchi Jul 25, 2013 12:33PM

A sign on a frozen food case indicates that food stamps are accepted at the Dollar General Corp. store in Saddle Brook, New Jersey (© Emile Wamsteker/Bloomberg via Getty Images)The food stamp benefit has swelled into a $75 billion-a-year program, given to about one in seven Americans last year. 


Those numbers are even more shocking considering the program's growth: A decade ago, only only about one in 12 Americans received food stamps, requiring the government to spend just $21.4 billion in 2003. 


With that kind of surge in spending, no wonder Republicans are aiming at the program. Their latest push focuses on requiring food stamp recipients to hold a job.


House Republicans are mulling a work requirement, The Associated Press reports, and the lawmakers met Wednesday to discuss how to cut spending on the benefit, called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.


One proposal would enable states to test work requirements, although it would be optional. "I think you have to have moral reformation before you have fiscal reformation," said Rep. Steve Southerland, R.-Fla., who made the proposal. 


While any benefits program is certain to have fraud, Southerland's comment appears to suggest that food stamp recipients are happy to receive government aid while kicking back and enjoying the good life. (Remember, the average food stamp benefit shells out just $133 per month, not exactly enough for a caviar-and-champagne lifestyle.) 


But the majority of able-bodied, working-age food stamp recipients already work, according to a January analysis of the program from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Some beneficiaries might be your cashiers and stockers at Wal-Mart (WMT), given that a recent report from congressional Democrats estimated a single low-paying Wal-Mart superstore costs taxpayers as much as $1.7 million per year in public benefits. 


Take a look at households with at least one working-age, nondisabled adult. The CBPP report showed about 58% were employed within a month of receiving the benefit, while 82% were either working in the year before or after they received the aid. 


And the number of people who work while receiving the benefit has increased for more than a decade. About 6.4 million recipients worked in 2011, up from 2 million in 2000, the study found. That indicates many Americans applied for the benefit during the Great Recession, which led to underemployment or households getting hit with layoffs or a cut in their hours, the study noted. 


Of course, across the entire spectrum of food stamp recipients, it's clear why critics are alarmed at the statistics, given that nearly 37.9 million recipients weren't working in 2011. But almost half of those are children -- and not expected to work -- while an additional 23% were elderly, disabled or caring for a disabled family member. 


"Most SNAP participants are either not expected to work or are working," the CBPP noted, adding, "There is not evidence that SNAP receipt creates work disincentives."


Follow Aimee Picchi on Twitter at @aimeepicchi. 


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