Earlier this summer the House took the smart step of separating food stamps and agricultural programs, which combined had formed the bloated farm bill. This set the stage for significant reform. Although the stand-alone food-stamp bill introduced this week moves in the right direction, conservatives should expect much more if we are to expand on the success of welfare reform.
Liberals, of course, decry any reduction in spending on the food-stamp program as tragic. But food stamp spending has swelled for years, recession or not. Between FY 2000 and FY 2007, it doubled from roughly $20 billion to $40 billion. Between FY 2008 and FY 2012, it doubled once more to about $80 billion.
Food stamps is only one of roughly a dozen welfare programs that provide food assistance. And it’s just one of about 80 means-tested welfare programs that provide cash, food, housing, medical care, and social services to lower-income Americans.
Worse than the spending is the culture of dependence created by policies that grew the rolls well beyond the intended population of needy Americans. The House proposal aims to close loopholes that allowed this to happen. For example, a policy known as “broad-based categorical eligibility” let states loosen income limits and overlook asset tests for applicants. Basically, that policy changed food stamps from a program for those truly in need to a bonus payment stacked on top of traditional unemployment benefits.
The House proposal also gets rid of a loophole that allows states to artificially boost the amount of benefits food-stamp recipients receive. This loophole is known as “Heat & Eat.” Households that receive benefits from the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) can be eligible for higher food-stamp benefits. So states have mailed out LIHEAP checks in small amounts to trigger the higher benefit for households.
The House proposal also is designed to encourage work for able-bodied adults. However, the measure only makes it optional for states to require work or work-related activity.
Encouraging self-sufficiency for those who are able to work is sound welfare policy and should be the heart of food-stamp reform. Across the board, work requirements are an essential feature of welfare reform.
Conservatives should insist that food stamps be converted into a work activation program. It ought to be mandatory – rather than merely optional – for states that receive federal food-stamp dollars to implement a work program for able-bodied adults.
Similar to the 1996 welfare reform, which transformed the largest cash-assistance program by inserting a mandatory work requirement, able-bodied adults should be required to work, prepare for work, or look for work in exchange for receiving food stamps.
Most Americans agree with this policy, which encourages personal responsibility over a one-way government handout.
Unfortunately, food stamps remains stuck in the pre-reform days. To set the program on a course that promotes self-sufficiency, it’s time for a strong work requirement that comes as a standard feature—not an optional add-on.
- Rachel Sheffield is a policy analyst in the Heritage Foundation’s DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society.
Originally appeared in National Review Online.