During the Great Depression, the government initiated a temporary program to help distribute surplus food and alleviate hardship. During the Kennedy administration the program restarted, expanding to be a permanent entity. This Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps, as it has been traditional known, has attracted particular scrutiny recently. The House has voted to cut $39 billion over the next ten years from the SNAP budget.
Extreme reactions from leaders on both sides of the issue have been disappointing as usual. On the one hand, some seem to think that any cuts to the SNAP program will result in the mass starvation of millions of Americans. Others appear to be convinced that every SNAP recipient is a freeloader and a fraud.
Of course the bill still has to pass the Senate, which remains unlikely, but that has not stopped partisans from issuing attacks from both sides of the aisle. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi insisted, “This legislation is preying on people. P-R-E-Y-I-N-G!” While Majority Leader Eric Cantor countered that it was "wrong for working, middle-class people to pay" for abuse of the program.
To understand what these cuts to SNAP would really mean, we have to look at how the program has changed over the past few years. Since 2008, the number of people receiving food stamps has grown from 28 million to over 47 million. Unsurprisingly, the program’s expenditures have grown from $38 million to over $75 million. So while these cuts would undoubtedly be felt, they would not bring spending anywhere close to 2008 levels.
As I have written before, much of this expansion is due to the aggressive outreach efforts of the Department of Agriculture. Decades ago, internal publications from the USDA boasted about persuading “too proud” blacks to enroll in the program. Now the USDA runs radio ads in Spanish, urging that people who care about their children will enroll in SNAP. Furthermore, there has been no demonstrated nutritional benefit to food stamps, with a large percentage of the lower income population suffering from obesity rather than from consuming too few calories.
Bishop Harry Jackson is chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition and senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, MD, and co-authored, Personal Faith, Public Policy [FrontLine; March 2008] with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.