That's odd: Food stamp enrollment still very much on the rise

Enrollment in social safety-net benefits is supposed to move in sync with expansions and contractions in the economy; in other words, more people will join the rolls when times are tougher and unemployment is on the rise, but the numbers will fall again when the economy corrects and wealth-and-job creation is in full swing. Under President Obama, however, there’s now ample data to suggest that what we’re witnessing is a very different phenomenon.

The recession technically ended in 2009, and Democrats are quick to tout that the economy is producing various marginal, as-best-as-can-be-expected gains — but the numbers of Americans enrolled in the food stamp program only continues to climb to new heights. The Wall Street Journal reports:

Enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as the modern-day food-stamp benefit is known, has soared 70% since 2008 to a record 47.8 million as of December 2012. Congressional budget analysts think participation will rise again this year and dip only slightly in coming years.

The biggest factor behind the upward march of food stamps is a sluggish job market and a rising poverty rate. At the same time, many states have pushed to get more people to apply for SNAP…

In recent years, the law has enabled states to ease asset and income tests for would-be participants, with the encouragement of the Obama administration, allowing into the program people with relatively higher incomes as well as savings. …

The Congressional Budget Office predicts unemployment will drop to 5.6% by 2017 but that SNAP enrollment will drop slightly to 43.3 million people, down 4.5 million from the current level.

Let’s momentarily disregard the fact that the White House also once projected that unemployment would drop below six percent by 2012, and go ahead with the CBO’s scenario: Their predicted drop in unemployment is nowhere near proportional to their predicted drop in food-stamp enrollment. Why is it, exactly, that we’re trying to change and expand the very nature of the government dole when we’re clearly seeing that all of these increases in poverty programs are not achieving anything to combat poverty? Economic growth is the only wide-reaching, efficient, and actually “fair” way to lower the poverty rate, and all of this government spending, market interference, and regulatory uncertainty we’ve been seeing under President Obama is only helping to stand in the economy’s way.

And as it turns out, foods stamps aren’t the only safety-net program undergoing some fundamental changes, either:

In the past three decades, the number of Americans who are on disability has skyrocketed. The rise has come even as medical advances have allowed many more people to remain on the job, and new laws have banned workplace discrimination against the disabled. Every month, 14 million people now get a disability check from the government.

The federal government spends more money each year on cash payments for disabled former workers than it spends on food stamps and welfare combined. … Yet because they are not technically part of the labor force, they are not counted among the unemployed.

In other words, people on disability don’t show up in any of the places we usually look to see how the economy is doing. But the story of these programs — who goes on them, and why, and what happens after that — is, to a large extent, the story of the U.S. economy. It’s the story not only of an aging workforce, but also of a hidden, increasingly expensive safety net.

Oof. All of these extra Americans signing up for safety-net benefits is a sign of neither compassion nor wisdom. It’s a sign of failure. Republicans are not trying to eliminate these programs; they are trying to engender a robust and inclusive economy in which there are enough attractive opportunities available that people neither want nor need this level of federal assistance — a goal to which far too many of the Obama administration’s agenda items are directly counterproductive.