Some states are already embracing deep cuts to the food stamp program similar to those passed by House Republicans in Washington, ending the food subsidy for tens of thousands of low-income Americans regardless of what Congress does.
Spurred by the ballooning cost of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the GOP-dominated House voted Thursday 217-210 to cut $39 billion in the food assistance program over 10 years. Among the changes: Ending waivers for states that during the recession allowed as many as 4 million people to collect food stamps who otherwise would not have qualified.
The fate of the congressional legislation is uncertain. The Senate approved much smaller reductions, and the White House threatened to veto any large cuts to food stamps.
But in six states—Delaware, Kansas, New Hampshire, Utah, Vermont and Wyoming—similar reductions are already in place, or soon will be. Two more states will join them once their waivers expire, potentially taking away food stamps from tens of thousands of current recipients.
Republicans blame the program's ever-increasing rolls and cost on lax enrollment criteria rather than real need. Since before the recession, the price tag for food stamps has more than doubled, topping $82.5 billion in fiscal year 2013. Enrollment hit record highs, with 15 percent of Americans now collecting benefits. Many states have more than 20 percent of their population enrolled (see chart).
Costs have continued to spike as well, as Washington pays for the benefits and states administer them. A new Congressional Research Service report released this month showed fiscal year 2012 was the 12th year in a row a new historical high was reached for federal food and nutrition programs, the vast majority of which is food stamps. Since fiscal year 2000, the report said, spending on federal food assistance has more than tripled.
Put in a different context, the U.S. Census Bureau said food stamps lifted 4 million Americans out of poverty last year if the benefits were counted as income.
Top 10 States with Highest Share of Population on Food Stamps
What States Are Doing
Kansas is the latest to embrace the cuts, ending a federal waiver on Oct. 1 that allows unemployed, non-elderly and able-bodied adults without children to remain on food stamps despite failing to meet certain work requirements. The change is expected to affect 20,000 Kansans. Wisconsin will let its waiver expire in July 2014, and Oklahoma will also let its waiver at the end of this month; 71,000 and 47,000 people, respectively, received benefits through the waiver in 2011, the latest year for which data is available.
The waivers, part of the 1996 welfare reform, were designed to give states flexibility in times of high unemployment. It suspends a requirement that limits benefits to three months unless recipients work 20 hours a week or spend a certain amount of time on work-related activities, such as job training.
Until this year, 45 states took advantage of the waiver during the recession, and two that did not – Vermont and New Hampshire – weren't eligible for statewide coverage, which is based on unemployment and job market data. Delaware and Utah chose not to request a waiver, while Wyoming wasn't eligible.
Many Republican-led states are trimming safety nets as the recession wanes. In addition, food stamp benefits for all recipients are set to fall Nov. 1 when federal stimulus money ends. Some states have changed welfare enrollment criteria. Others enacted unprecedented cuts in unemployment insurance, as Stateline previously reported.
Against that backdrop, supporters of the cuts see the work requirement as a prime opportunity to trim the rolls. Those possibly affected by ending the waivers comprise less than 5 percent of Americans collecting food stamps.
Republicans see the improving economy as a sign enrollment should be dropping anyway, with cuts to benefits a good way to push some people back into the labor market. Kansas made its case clear, calling the policy “an effort to encourage employment over welfare dependency.”
“Employment is the most effective way to escape poverty,” Kansas Department of Children and Families Secretary Phyllis Gilmore said in a statement announcing the move.
Those who support ending the waivers also promise robust job placement and training programs to help those affected meet work requirements, which could allow them to keep their benefits. Wisconsin, for example, is spending an additional $33 million on those efforts as its waiver expires.
Are Cuts Premature?
Others say the cuts are premature in the face of a weak job market— 11 states and the District of Columbia have unemployment rates measurably higher than the national 7.3 percent jobless rate. The waivers are designed to end once employment improves. Ending them sooner could strip flexibility to deal with lingering joblessness, which is expected to remain above normal for years.
“It's hard to imagine any state would want to lose the flexibility to use waivers to tailor the policy to meet local conditions,” said Dottie Rosenbaum, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank. Rosenbaum added that the work-requirement policy can have “harsh effects on very poor individuals.”
Underlying the debate is the question of whether policies enacted during the recession have increased enrollment levels beyond actual need. Critics cite the outsized growth of food stamps compared with other safety net programs during the recession.
Projections paint a bleak picture. The Congressional Budget Office estimates more than 43 million will collect food stamp benefits in 2017, just 4 million fewer than today. By 2022, the CBO estimates enrollment will be 9 million more than pre-recession levels and total spending will be nearly $73 billion—more than double than it was in 2007.