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Stretching Stamps

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

It would be difficult to expand the food stamp program (officially the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) much further.

Between 2008 and 2010, the number of able-bodied people getting food stamps doubled, after the Obama administration lifted work requirements. One in seven Americans is on food stamps, which cost the federal government some $84.6 billion in 2011. One way to help SNAP recipients without spending more would be to teach them to stretch their dollars.

That’s where Stephanie Nelson, The Coupon Mom, comes in. She started her business years ago as a way to help others save money and “cut out hunger”. These days it’s a true story of the American dream come true, a simple idea that developed into a successful small business.

Her method is no secret; she details it on her Web site. She calls it “Strategic Shopping,” and says it’s “not about changing the way you eat, it is changing the way you buy the food that you like.” By planning meals and buying when things are on sale, shoppers can save big without having to run to stores all over town.

Nelson thinks she could teach SNAP recipients to spend more wisely with a few simple videos, roughly 90 seconds each. People use the Web to sign up for benefits, she notes. SNAP could require them to watch a video as part of that process. Those interested could select other videos showing more in-depth methods. Everyone would have a chance to learn easy ways to save money.

“The federal government has an opportunity to provide long-term life skills to people, even if they’re in the SNAP program for just a short time,” Nelson says. That’s an idea that should have the power to unite conservatives and liberals. It’s really just a variation of former President Bill Clinton’s campaign stump speech. “People know they need independence, not dependence,” he said in 1992. “They want a hand up, not a handout.”

Indeed, Americans are compassionate and want to help others. One way we do so is by spending roughly $1 trillion each year on welfare programs -- $109 billion of that on food aid. Some say even that’s not enough.

Late last year, for example, Newark Mayor Cory Booker decided to spotlight how difficult it is to live on food stamps. He tried to live on the benefit for a week. “Today I burned a sweet potato,” Booker blogged on the fifth day of his challenge. “[W]ith supplies dwindling it was eat around the severely caramelized root vegetable or go without.”

Booker’s $30 weekly allowance left him unable to afford even a single cup of Starbucks coffee. However he was able to afford a tablet computer and, presumably, a high-speed connection so he could upload photos of his sparse meals.

Nelson took the same challenge Booker did, but made it even more difficult on herself. Could she use food stamps to feed her family of four? Yes. “I came in 36 percent below my allotted amount,” Nelson says. She spent a total of $98 for a week of food, and came away kicking herself, to boot. “I forgot to use some coupons I had with me. I could have gotten the final bill down to $92.”

Washington isn’t helping anyone by promoting dependence on government. Lawmakers should cap and then roll back spending on food stamps, and demand that able-bodied recipients work (or at least train for work) in return for its benefits. SNAP should also teach people how to be smarter shoppers.

Stephanie Nelson has volunteered to do the teaching; it’ll be interesting to see if the federal government takes her up on it.

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