1-800-FOOD-STAMPS: How states expand eligibility for welfare program
posted at 5:01 pm on August 2, 2012 by Rob Bluey
Getting food-stamp benefits can now be as easy as picking up an informational brochure or calling a toll-free number, according to a new report out this week from the Government Accountability Office. More than 40 states have lowered eligibility requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, resulting in a vast expansion of the welfare state under President Obama.
During fiscal year 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), previously known as the Food Stamp Program, provided food and nutrition assistance to almost 45 million individuals each month for a total of $71.8 billion in benefits for the year. SNAP is intended to help low-income individuals and families obtain a better diet by supplementing their incomes with benefits to purchase food. Over the last 10 years, SNAP participation has more than doubled and costs have quadrupled.
The expansion began during the Bush administration and has only accelerated in recent years on Obama’s watch. This chart tells the story:
GAO’s report, which came at the request of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), examines why more Americans than ever before are relying on food stamps. And while the poor economy certainly played a factor, states did their part to expand eligibility as well. Here’s how they do it:
For example, in states like Alabama, Hawaii and Montana, a brochure automatically triggers eligibility in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). In California, Kentucky, Maine and Nebraska, state-issued pamphlets or “resource guides” convey the same eligibility. Other states use a variety of other methods, including notices on the program’s application and a variety of other printed materials.
In states like Delaware, the program application “refers to a pregnancy prevention hotline.” For Oklahoma, SNAP participation may be obtained through a website and an “800 number about marriage classes,” according to a report on SNAP eligibility produced by the Congressional Research Service.
Now, granted, it’s not as easy as just dialing a number. The federal government still requires a household’s income to fall within the state’s specified limit. But as the GAO investigation revealed, “2.6 percent (473,000) of households that received Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits would not have been eligible for the program without broad-based categorical eligibility (BBCE) because their incomes were over the federal SNAP eligibility limits.”
That’s a sizable number and a factor in the program’s rapid growth. But how do we reverse it? Robert Rector and Katherine Bradley of The Heritage Foundation last week outlined the need for reform, noting that there’s little incentive to change given current federal policies:
Since the federal government pays for 100 percent of the cost of food stamp benefits, state governments have a financial incentive to enroll as many individuals as possible in the program.
Unfortunately, even legislative steps in the GOP-controlled House haven’t amounted to much. The so-called “farm bill” that won approval from the House Agriculture Committee shaved only 2 percent from the Obama-era levels. The Senate version would lock in spending at $80 billion per year for the next decade.
It all adds up to a simple reality: “The Obama administration wants to make Americans more dependent on government, not less.”
Rob Bluey directs the Center for Media and Public Policy, an investigative journalism operation at The Heritage Foundation. Follow him on Twitter: @RobertBluey