Yesterday, Daily Caller reported that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is using tax dollars to push the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps, in Spanish advertisements. This series of advertisements, while not new (they have been out since 2008), is another bit of controversy surrounding the ever-more expansive and expensive food stamp program. They also follow on the heels of an English ad encouraging people to sign up for assistance.

According to Daily Caller, the USDA has defended the ads:

“Congress allocates funds to USDA with the mandate to conduct public education about the benefits of SNAP and how to apply to help reduce hunger in America,” Amanda D. Browne, a USDA spokeswoman explained in an email to The Daily Caller. “The radio spots were written and produced in 2008 and are targeted to communities most at risk for hunger.”

These ads raise at least one important question: what is the goal of the food stamp program? Supporters say it’s to help those in financial and other troubles, but numbers from the Congressional Budget Office show this claim does not match the growth of the program over the last 12 years. From my post this morning on Big Government discussing the food stamp program:

A Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report in April 2012 said spending on food stamps from 2000 to 2011 went from $18 billion to $78 billion. Much of that growth came from 2007 to 2011, when SNAP benefit totals increased from approximately $38 billion to $78 billion. According to CBO, 65% of this latter growth was due to the weak economy, 20% was due to increased assistance in the 2009 stimulus, and 15% is related to “other factors,” including higher food prices. Using CBO’s numbers, approximately $26 billion in SNAP increases since 2007 can be directly attributed to the recession. This $26 billion equals about 43% of the growth since 2000, meaning 57% of growth is attributed to factors not directly associated with the recession.

With this kind of growth of food stamp spending outside of economic reasons, I think it’s hard for supporters to claim SNAP is used solely to help the poor. Hoping for a bit more explanation, I have contacted the House Agriculture Committee and the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry — the two respective committees in charge of the two farm bills being jockeyed around in Congress — to ask how the cost of the programs (currently expected to be $400 billion over five years) will change as the economy improves. While I did not receive answers prior to publication, I think elucidation by these committees would provide important information to taxpayers who are very concerned about the cost of SNAP.

To clarify: none of this is intended to say those on food stamps are necessarily at fault for being on the program, even if it is not used strictly for the poor. For example, unlike Medicare, Medicaid, defense and other portions of the federal budget, fraud and improper payments are not major contributors to the cost of the program, though of course any inefficiencies should be eliminated. From my Big Government piece:

While the Agriculture Department says only $800 million, about one percent, of the funding for food stamps is lost to fraud, [Heritage Foundation Research Associate Rachel] Sheffield wrote in December 2011 nearly 3.9% of funding was lost to “improper payments,” totaling $2.5 billion in 2011.

Additionally, according to a homeless activist I interviewed:

I feel that the effectiveness of the food stamp problem is multi-faceted. Many individuals who are on the food stamp program don’t have stable income, and thus the SNAP program creates a standard of living that is hard to break away from. Some individuals will work 25-30 hours a week and sometimes they work 10 due to the constantly shifting nature of their professions. Much like the stock market, low wage earners’ income seems to be quite volatile and thus the individual has a hard time creating the stability needed to leave the food stamp program…

The second major issue is the inability to educate the SNAP participant on healthy food choices and the inability for the participant to acquire healthy food options. Many times healthy food options are clearly too expensive or not sustainable on a food stamp budget. Many reports and news articles have discussed the difficulties of purchasing food items on the $200.00/month maximum that is allotted to NH residents. While that might seem like a lot to a college student, a full-grown male who is suppose to maintain a balance of 2200 calories a day (especially individuals who work manual labor) is not going to receive the nutritional sustenance needed to stay healthy. I’m not saying that SNAP is useless; however positive changes to the long-term sustainability could really help individuals who truly want to leave the SNAP program forever.

As a believer in smaller government, I think the food stamp program is flawed both philosophically and financially. In what I’m sure is a slap in the face to its defenders, as I pointed out at Big Government, it even provides some corporate welfare. Basically, I think Sheffield summarized it well when she wrote in April that the USDA and the federal government in general “[seem] to be saying that federal dependence translates to poverty relief.” Again, the question arises: what is the goal of the food stamp program? While those on it, and its supporters, may truly believe it’s about helping the poor, the anecdotal and empirical evidence indicates it often is not.