For fans of conservatives’ favorite teller of “hard truths,” the Path to Prosperity budget proposal released by Rep. Paul Ryan this week must have been a disappointment.
The document made a splash in years past with controversial plans like turning Medicare into a voucher program. This time, it’s largely a retread of old ideas. But given the mentions of a “grand bargain” we hear from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, it’s worth taking a fresh look at his proposal to turn the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – more commonly known as SNAP or food stamps – into a block grant to the states.
The idea has anti-hunger advocates worried. Other government programs try to help people improve their lives by finding a job or getting an education. But SNAP a true safety net. It is based on the principle that in America, no one should have to dig through a dumpster to find a meal.
When it comes to this goal, the program is quite well-targeted. You’ve probably heard conservatives like Ryan talk about lottery winners who use food stamps or fraudsters who try to get rich by claiming benefits they don’t deserve. These people are the exception – and, incidentally, the perpetrators cited have generally been caught and prosecuted.
In reality, the program is a lifeline for America’s poorest families. Households with children, senior citizens, or people with disabilities make up three-quarters of SNAP recipients. Eighty-five percent of these households are below the federal poverty guideline.
And the recipients are hardly getting rich – the average benefit of $4.30 a day isn’t enough to buy lunch at the U.S. Capitol cafeteria, much less a day’s worth of nutritious meals.
So Americans should be skeptical of proposals to turn SNAP into a “block grant” program. Under such a system, the federal government would write a check to each state and let them decide how best to use it. Ryan would go a step further, adding a work requirement as a criterion for eligibility.
Sound familiar? It’s remarkably similar to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, another federal program that got its start in the welfare reform law of 1996. Whatever the virtues of TANF, it functions poorly as a social safety net. Relatively few families receive benefits, and most are eligible to receive assistance for a limited time. The program was meant to provide incentives for families to become self-sufficient rather than relying on welfare, but as the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities notes, even this effort has failed:
“TANF’s early years witness unprecedented declines in the number of families receiving cash assistance – and unprecedented increases in the share of single mothers working, especially those with less than a high school education. But since then, as the economy has weakened, nearly all of the employment gains have disappeared, and TANF caseloads have responded only modestly to increased need during the deep economic downturn that started in 2007.”
Another problem with the block grant proposal? The government would lose an important stimulus tool for economic downturns. After the Great Recession hit, Congress used the Recovery Act to increase food stamp benefits by 13.6 percent. It was a quick and easy way to boost the incomes of the people most likely to be hurting and most likely to spend their newfound cash, boosting demand at an important time.
Far from a driver of debt and dependence, SNAP is a success story and a model of good government. That’s one hard truth you won’t hear from Paul Ryan.