Senate Republicans: Policy, not necessity, drives ballooning food stamp rolls

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Republican senators are arguing that the economic recession was not the only reason that food stamp spending growth outpaced increases in defense, Medicaid and transportation spending over the last four years.

“While the poor economy has undeniably increased the number of people on food stamps, this alone cannot explain the extraordinary growth in the program. For instance, between 2001 and 2006, food stamp spending doubled — but the unemployment rate remained around 5 percent,” Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, said on the Senate floor Thursday.

According to Senate Budget Committee Republicans, spending on the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — food stamps — has quadrupled since 2001 and doubled in just the last four years. In the same four-year period, the number of Americans on those benefits increased 65 percent, from 28.8 million in 2008 to 46.6 million in 2012.

Food stamp spending represents 80 percent of the 2012 Farm Bill. Crop insurance, commodities and conservation make up the remaining 20 percent.

Food stamp advocates argue that the increase in spending and participation is largely due to the recession and “counter-cyclical.” That means that once the economy improves, the estimated number of recipients will still be higher than before the recession.

“When the food stamp program was first expanded nationwide, about 1 in 50 Americans received food stamp benefits. Today, nearly 1 in 7 Americans are on food stamps,” Sessions said.

According to Republican Senate Budget staff, after the economy is expected to fully recover, one in nine Americans will still be receiving food stamps. Just prior to the recession that number was one in 11.

Sessions laid out a plan Thursday during debate on the Farm Bill to confront the program’s ballooning cost with four amendments targeting the factors behind the recent expansion. One major target is a “categorical eligibility” rule, which allows states to provide food stamps to citizens whose assets “exceed” the eligibility limit if they receive other government assistance. Also on Sessions’ chopping block are incentives for states to increase their food stamp rolls.

One of Sessions’ amendments would require an asset test for food stamp applicants. Another would close a loophole in the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program that allows people to claim a lower income, and eligibility for food stamps, on the basis of their heating/cooling bills.

He would also end a bonus system that awards funds to states that enroll more people, and establish a system to verify that people applying for food stamps are in the country legally, through a program similar to E-Verify.

“Empowering the individual is more than sound policy,” Sessions added. “It remains the animating moral idea behind the American experience.”

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