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Making food stamps more than a handout

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A few months ago, Washington buzzed with talk of “doing something” about the food stamp program. The congressional spotlight has now turned to the debt ceiling, but the food stamps program still merits a serious examination. It is ripe for reform.

Food aid is one of the largest and fastest growing of the federal government’s welfare programs. Over the last four years, program spending has doubled, reaching approximately $80 billion in FY 2012. More Americans receive food stamps now than at any time in our nation’s history.

Of course the recession has contributed to some of that growth. However, spending increases were happening prior to the recession — program costs doubled between 2000 and 2007. And even now, supposedly in the fourth year of economic recovery, the rolls of recipients and costs continue to soar.

What has contributed to the massive growth of the food stamps program? Beyond the recession, policies put into place over the last several years have made it easier for people to enter the program. Other loopholes have made it possible for states to artificially boost benefit amounts for some households.

Like most government welfare programs, the food stamp program fails to promote self-sufficiency. It is a one-way transfer, imposing no reciprocal obligation on recipients. This is not good either for the people getting food stamps or for the taxpayers who pay for them. Americans are generous and want to help their neighbors, but they also believe their neighbors should do what they can for themselves.

First and foremost, food stamps should be reformed to promote work among able-bodied adults. Policies should make it mandatory for states receiving federal food stamp dollars to require those who are able-bodied to work, prepare for work, or at minimum look for work in exchange for receiving aid.

Even in good economic times, work rates among food stamp households with able-bodied adults were low. A work requirement ensures that individuals get the help they need but at the same time are doing what they can to attain self-reliance. Even in a down economy, a work requirement — which can be fulfilled with job training or a job search — points individuals in the right direction.

Policies that have expanded food stamps beyond the original intent also should be changed. “Broad-based categorical eligibility,” put into place by the Clinton administration and heavily pushed under President Obama, has allowed states to bypass asset tests. This means that individuals with a substantial amount of savings can enroll in food stamps — a policy that should be ended.

Another loophole, dubbed “Heat & Eat,” has led to states artificially boosting the amount of food stamp benefits for some recipients and should be closed.

Another important reform to promote self-sufficiency would be to require food stamp recipients and applicants to pass a drug test. This would help ensure that taxpayers are not contributing to the perpetuation of an individual’s destructive drug habit.

Of course, the food stamp program is just one of many means-tested welfare programs. Although such programs are generally discussed in isolation — giving the perception that there are relatively few other sources of government assistance — the reality is that the federal government operates roughly 80 different means-tested welfare programs. These programs provide assistance in the form of cash, food, housing and medical and social services to poor and lower-income Americans. The total cost: nearly $1 trillion annually.

When President Lyndon B. Johnson launched the War on Poverty in the 1960s, he said the purpose of welfare was to target “the causes, not just the consequences” of poverty, and that it was designed to “cure” poverty “and above all, to prevent it.” Yet today, we have a far larger welfare system than in the 1960s, and the rates of self-sufficiency have remained virtually unchanged.

For decades food stamp programs have operated as a traditional, one-way handout. It is time to change this. It’s time to align welfare policy with principles of self-reliance. It’s time to reform food stamps to promote human thriving.

 - Rachel Sheffield is a Heritage Foundation policy analyst specializing in welfare and family issues.

Originally appeared in The Washington Times

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