Recruiting for Big Government: Food Stamps Run Amok

By Elise Hilton

One in five Oregonians participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the federal government’s “food stamp” program. Despite indications that the national economy is showing signs of revival, SNAP usage is at an all-time high:


Food-stamp use rose 2.7% in the U.S. in February from a year earlier, with 15% of the U.S. population receiving benefits….One of the federal government’s biggest social welfare programs, which expanded when the economy convulsed, isn’t shrinking back alongside the recovery.


Food stamp rolls increased on a year-over-year basis, but were 0.4% lower from the prior month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported. Though annual growth continues, the pace has slowed since the depths of the recession. The number of recipients in the food stamp program…reached 47.6 million, or nearly one in seven Americans.


It seems to be an easy equation: If joblessness is decreasing and the economy is improving, there should be fewer people receiving government assistance, right? Not so. Why? Part of the reason is that the government is actively recruiting people for SNAP, part is America’s ever-increasing dependence on government to solve our problems; and part is crony capitalism. It’s a heady mix of money, entitlement, and big government.


SNAP is symptomatic of America’s current view of the role of government: It is there to take care of our every need. Rather than seeking a way to solve problems of joblessness and hunger, we simply grow the programs once designed to help only in a crisis. Of course, the only way to grow these programs is to increase taxes on those who are working. As Dr. Samuel Gregg points out in his new book Becoming Europe, this creates an atmosphere of conflict, rather than harmony, in society. It means standing behind the food stamp user in line at the grocery store and grumbling about their purchases: In a sense, it is your money they are spending on soda and chips. It also means, according to Gregg, that there is less incentive to be productive on the part of citizens; after all, won’t the government take care of things?


The state of Florida, like many others, actively recruits SNAP recipients. According to The Washington Post, Dillie Nerios, a Florida state employee, has a quota of 150 new SNAP recipients monthly:


[I]t is Nerios’s job to enroll at least 150 seniors for food stamps each month, a quota she usually exceeds. Alleviate hunger, lessen poverty: These are the primary goals of her work. But the job also has a second and more controversial purpose for cash-strapped Florida, where increasing food-stamp enrollment has become a means of economic growth, bringing almost $6 billion each year into the state. The money helps to sustain communities, grocery stores and food producers. It also adds to rising federal entitlement spending and the U.S. debt.


As the name suggests, SNAP is meant to be a “supplemental” program. It has its roots in the Great Depression, when the federal government was faced with a surplus of agricultural goods, and high jobless rates. Food stamps allowed participants to purchase excess items at discount prices. The program vastly expanded in the 1960s, as part of the “Great Society” initiative. No longer were participants limited to purchasing surplus items, and benefits were tied to recipients’ income levels. By 2009, the Obama Administration further eased eligibility requirements, encouraging “states to disregard savings and higher incomes as criteria to disqualify applicants.”


The USDA claims that SNAP lifts people out of poverty, but the sheer numbers of those on SNAP belie that. As with many other issues in America, the attitude of many citizens toward hunger has become, “the government will take care of it.” This approach destroys charity on behalf of others and undercuts the dignity of those receiving handouts. Programs such as SNAP go from being “supplemental” to “lifestyle”: People stay on these programs longer and longer, with no incentive to support themselves, or to respond to the generosity of others by striving to contribute in turn to the common good. While most people would tell you that you can’t get something for nothing, SNAP proves them wrong.


Finally, SNAP is big business, and not in a good way. According to EatDrinkPolitics, the politics of food stamps and the politics of the food industry are deeply entangled in crony capitalism. For instance, Coca-Cola spent over one million dollars in just one quarter of 2011 lobbying the government regarding use of food stamps. Eighty-three percent of SNAP dollars are spent at supermarkets. In Oklahoma alone, Wal-Mart receives over $500 million in SNAP receipts. Because SNAP benefits are now largely utilized via EBT cards, banks benefit financially as well. It’s not just people becoming dependent on food stamps―it’s business. And business has no desire to see the government cut back on programs from which they are making millions.


We cannot suggest that SNAP does no good, or that there is no need for a food safety net in our country. Clearly, though, the astronomical growth of SNAP in the past few years has nothing to do with food safety and everything to do with big government, an entitlement culture, and crony capitalism.

Elise Hilton is a guest contributor for Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. She is the marketing coordinator for the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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