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Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Rise of Food Stamp Nation

Rich Lowry
Government at all levels actively wants people on the program.

Tom Vilsack is one of the most important welfare administrators in the nation. Oh, yeah — he’s also secretary of agriculture.

Two-thirds of the Agriculture Department’s budget is devoted to welfare programs. The biggest is food stamps, which is now the nation’s second-largest welfare program after Medicaid. Its inexorable growth during the past decade, through good times and bad, is a testament to government’s self-generating expansion.

Asked what labor wanted, the great 20th-century union leader Samuel Gompers answered, “More.” The modern welfare state lives by the same credo. About 17 million people received food stamps back in 2000. Some 30 million received them in 2008. Roughly 46 million people receive them today. From 1 in 50 Americans on food stamps at the program’s national inception in the 1970s, 1 in 7 Americans are on them now.

The grinding recession accounts for much of the increase the past few years, but not for its entirety. Spending on food stamps doubled between 2001 and 2006, even though unemployment was low in those years. Even when the economy is projected to improve in the future, usage of food stamps will remain elevated above historic norms. Food Stamp Nation is here to stay.

One of its pillars is so-called categorical eligibility, which means that if someone is eligible for another welfare program, he is presumptively eligible for food stamps. In 2000, the Clinton administration issued regulations saying that merely getting a noncash welfare benefit could make someone eligible. Getting a welfare brochure or being referred to an 800 number for services is enough to qualify in almost all the states. In Vermont, receiving a bookmark with a telephone number and website for services is enough.

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