The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is high on the Republican list of programs targeted for reform — and justifiably so.
The program has gone from 17 million enrollees in 2000 to about 43 million today, with outlays up from about $25 billion to more than $70 billion.
The Trump administration's budget submitted last February includes major reforms to the program, designed to save $216 billion over the next decade.
Now the House Agriculture committee has put forth its own reforms as part of the bill reauthorizing the budget of the Department of Agriculture for the next five years.
The problem with the food stamp program is similar to the problem of the other anti-poverty, welfare programs on which we spend almost 25 percent of the federal budget.
That is, what is directed in the spirit of compassion, to provide temporary assistance to those who have fallen on hard times, transforms into a way of life.
As we might expect, food stamp enrollees skyrocketed as the recession set in heavily in 2008. The number of recipients went from approximately 26 million in 2007 to a peak of 47.6 million in 2013. With the economic recovery, the number has dropped off to about 43 million.
The Labor Department now reports that unemployment has fallen to 3.9 percent — the lowest since December 2000. Unemployment peaked during the recession at almost 10 percent. Why, when unemployment has dropped by 61 percent, has the number of food stamp recipients dropped by only 10 percent? The number of recipients is about 17 million higher than before the recession.
The answer is that it's a lot easier to get aid recipients onto a welfare program than get them off.
Although the unemployment rate has dropped dramatically, the employment rate — the percentage of the population over 16 working — is still far below where it was prior to the recession. The latest jobs report shows the employment rate at 60.3 percent. Just prior to the recession in 2007, it was at 63.4 percent. If today's employment rate stood where it was before the recession, there would be 8 million more Americans working.
These 8 million Americans are not sitting on the sidelines just because of food stamps. Disability insurance and other welfare programs also leave the door open to not working.
How to solve this problem? Start with the Reagan rule: "Government is not the solution to our problem; government IS the problem."
The more government we have, the more we make food stamps into the big business it is today. Why do we want corporate lobbyists for firms selling to food stamp EBT cardholders — Walmart, Target, Kroger, and even Amazon — lining the halls of Congress to lobby for these programs?
The Department of Agriculture is proposing that the government provide a food basket instead of cash. There is also the idea that government should manage the nutrition of food stamp recipients. The House bill incentivizes purchases of fruit, vegetables and milk. But do we really want a huge new government bureaucracy buying and packaging food baskets for 40 million enrollees?
I say no. We should not expand government interference in anybody's life.
Instead, the best idea is to expand work requirements for getting benefits. The House bill requires 80 hours of work per month to receive ongoing benefits. This for those 18-49, with no dependents, and parents of school-age children, up to the age of 60. For any new or changed requirements, let's have the states decide.
Government assistance should not be about changing anybody's life. Changing lives should be left to family, friends and private charity.