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The Food Stamp Pirouette

eye on the news

The Food Stamp Pirouette

By Washington’s own metrics, the program makes no dent whatsoever on poverty rates—except when it does. April 21, 2015

You’re not alone if you’ve ever wondered how the government at all levels can spend about $1 trillion per year on “anti-poverty” programs, while the poverty rate never goes down. By the federal government’s official standard, the poverty rate stood at about 15 percent when the War on Poverty began more than 50 years ago—and it remains about 15 percent today, despite more than $20 trillion of anti-poverty spending since then. Could all that money really have had no effect? The question puts government officials in a tricky position. On the one hand, they feel duty-bound to defend the effectiveness of the spending; on the other, any major reduction in the official measure of poverty risks undermining political support for continued and increased spending.

Congressional budget trimmers are currently eyeing the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a.k.a. SNAP, a.k.a. food stamps, which is administered by the Department of Agriculture. The recent budget resolution envisions converting the program into block grants to the states, a move that would put about three-quarters of the DOA out of business. In late March, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to defend the program against such a move.

Among the many federal anti-poverty programs, food stamps play a role that seems almost magical. The program currently spends approximately $80 billion per year, supposedly to combat poverty and hunger. Yet in official Census Bureau poverty statistics, food stamps are defined as “in-kind” benefits that don’t count as part of the “cash-income” poverty measure. And the food stamp program also somehow manages not to make a dent in the government’s most-cited proxy for “hunger”—the annual “food insecurity” survey, also administered by Vilsack’s department, which asks people whether they felt “food insecure” at any time during the past year. Since food stamps require recipients to make a budget last for a month, many beneficiaries understandably answer that question in the affirmative. And thus, somehow, the number of people declaring food insecurity has barely declined at all during the Obama presidency, even as the number of food stamp recipients has mushroomed, from about 32 million to more than 46 million.

Some might say spending $80 billion to expand food stamp enrollment and leave the official poverty rate untouched was the whole idea: if the program dramatically reduced measured poverty and food insecurity, people might think that these problems are getting solved, and the support for continued spending increases could erode. Still, you would think that the Department of Agriculture would feel embarrassed about the program’s apparent failure. How is it conceivable that the United States could spend so much every year on a food-for-the-poor program that has exactly zero effect?

So Secretary Vilsack has a difficult position to defend. In his Journal op-ed, he took his best shot: “SNAP continues to reduce poverty. . . . More than 4.8 million Americans, including 2.1 million children, are lifted out of poverty when SNAP benefits are counted as income. . . . Rather than arbitrarily taking a budget axe to a program with a proven record of effectiveness and declining costs, common sense tells us that we should instead be working together to put those SNAP recipients who can work back to work.”

See how he snuck in how SNAP reduces poverty “when SNAP benefits are counted as income”? Except SNAP benefits are not counted as income when the Census Bureau measures poverty—and no one has heard Vilsack demand that Census change its methodology. Vilsack and his cohorts want to have it both ways: when they want to show lots of people in poverty in order to sell the public on more anti-poverty funding, then food stamps don’t count; but when they want to tout the program’s success, then suddenly food stamps do count.

You have to admire Vilsack’s brazenness in describing SNAP as “a program with a proven record of effectiveness.” By the metrics that Washington provides—namely the official poverty and “food insecurity” rates—SNAP may be the most ineffective use of money in the entire federal budget. Because of the way the methodology is designed, the two leading metrics never budge, and they never will, even if SNAP spending is doubled or tripled or quadrupled—or, for that matter, cut in half.

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