EDITORIAL: Push for work requirement reveals misunderstanding of food stamp program

2017-05-18 | The Kansas City Star

May 19--During a recent visit to Kansas City, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue suggested changes will soon come to the nation's food stamp program, which many Republicans think costs too much.

"There will probably be requirements to look for work," Perdue said, or be in a job training program.

The secretary's comments betray a misunderstanding of the food stamp program, known as SNAP. Which isn't surprising since SNAP is probably the country's most misunderstood welfare program.

There is already a work requirement for food stamps. Under current law, able-bodied adults without dependents can get food stamps for only three months in a three-year period. After that, applicants must work a minimum of 80 hours a month to qualify or take part in job training for the same time period.

To be fair, those requirements can be set aside during tough economic times, and often are. In 2015, only nine states, including Kansas, enforced the work requirement for able-bodied adults.

Even if every state implemented work requirements, however, the savings likely would be small. That's because two out of three food stamp recipients are children, the disabled or those over 50 years of age. They're not considered able-bodied adults, so they're exempt from the work regulations.

Surely the secretary doesn't believe kids should have to work for food.

For most of the 42 million Americans getting food stamp assistance, the program is a key component in providing a minimal level of nutrition and health.

But it's just one part of a family's budget.

Many Americans think food stamp beneficiaries are totally dependent on the government for meals. That's incorrect. The average benefit last year in Kansas was $113.89 a month -- about a week's worth of food. In Missouri, the benefit was $124.18 per person.

Many Americans believe food stamp clients waste their benefit. Yet current law prohibits the use of food stamps to buy liquor or tobacco, pet food, soaps and cleaners or non-food items.

Outright food stamp fraud is also rare -- between 1 to 2 percent of all payments.

Of course, the food stamp program does cost money, around $70 billion a year. That's why Congress and the administration must work diligently to make sure benefits are targeted for those who need them.

But in a $4 trillion budget, a $70 billion program that helps feed 42 million people, including children, seems like a worthwhile investment.

It also helps farmers, who face economic problems of their own. The food stamp program was created largely as a way to soak up farm surpluses. That's why the program is included in the farm bill, which is up for renewal next year.

That isn't the case today, of course. Food stamps have become an essential part of the safety net, from urban areas to rural communities facing hardship.

That's one reason President Donald Trump did not propose cutting food stamps in his March budget.

The program should survive any close examination that's fair and comprehensive. We hope and expect Secretary Perdue and Congress will give food stamps the hearing the program deserves.