In 1996 Bill Clinton signed the law ending welfare as we know it. This quote was written 20 years later in 2016:
More than 13 million people received cash assistance from the government in 1995, before the law was passed. Today, just 3 million do.
“Simply put, welfare reform worked because we all worked together,” Bill Clinton, who signed into law welfare reform, or the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times in 2006. Clinton had campaigned on a pledge to “end welfare as we know it” and today it is all too apparent that he succeeded.
I tend to disagree with the last sentence. Ever since Bill Clinton signed welfare reform, Congress and states have worked piecemeal for its return. We don’t give cash, we give Medicaid, Section 8 vouchers, TANF, no-cost Internet, food stamps among other programs.
SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) is a $111 billion food assistance program, 94% of which goes directly to families in the form of debit cards used to purchase food at stores. Why food stamps? I believe it goes way back to the scourge of hunger in antiquity. Without machines to do the work, animals and people had to work much harder and the consumer surplus from labor was much, much lower. Superphosphate fertilizers were not invented until the 1840s and the bones of dead soldiers were often scavenged and ground up as a fertilizer. Thus, food was not as plentiful and was more expensive before the Industrial Revolution. The calories needed for manual labor was also greater.
To a large degree most people before 1800 were engaged in subsistence farming to feed their families. Throughout the millennia before the Industrial Age, hunger was an ever-present condition. For instance, there are 46 references in the Christian Bible about feeding the poor. Yet in the 21st Century food is neither scarce nor expensive. Hunger isn’t really a problem, rather it’s a symptom of other problems. Hunger in the U.S. today is mostly related to things such as child neglect, dementia, substance abuse, mental illness, etc. Yet, by most accounts SNAP is the one welfare program that enjoys broad support among voters.
Meanwhile, Republicans in Iowa are facing headwinds in their attempt to require closer scrutiny of those receiving food stamps.
Iowa lawmakers have approved a bill to require new asset tests for people receiving food assistance benefits, and regular eligibility checks on all public assistance recipients to make sure they qualify.
The bill culminates years of efforts from Iowa Republicans to place new requirements and identity verification on those receiving public assistance benefits, which supporters say will save taxpayer dollars and ensure benefits are going to those who need them.
More than 200 faith leaders across Iowa signed a letter to Reynolds and legislative leaders saying they oppose the bill “on moral, religious and humanitarian grounds.”
Notice that faith leaders oppose food stamp work requirements, ‘on moral, religious and humanitarian grounds’. That goes back to my argument about the role of hunger in antiquity and references to feeding the hungry in the Bible.
Food stamps are just food subsidies for the poor. What could be wrong with that? It’s not like the government is giving poor people illicit drugs, cigarettes and lottery tickets (see comment below on what fungible means). However, SNAP is correlated with some negative health effects. For example, SNAP is associated with obesity.
…study found that among the nonelderly female population, participation in the SNAP program did correlate with higher obesity and overweight rates. In fact, for such women, participation in the program for a 1- or 2-year period resulted in an increase in the likelihood of being obese by 2-5%. This is equal to a gain in Body Mass Index (BMI) of 0.5%, about 3 pounds. Long-term participation in SNAP for these women corresponded to a 4.5-10% increase in the probability of being obese. Nonelderly females make up around 28% of SNAP recipients nationwide.
A 2010 study completed by the Harvard School of Public Health using the 2007 Adult California Health Interview Survey (which tracks Body Mass Index and obesity data among Californians) found that obesity rates among SNAP participants were 30% higher than among non-participants, when adjusted for socio-demographic characteristics, food insecurity, and participation in other programs.
A physician endocrinologist, who treated diabetes, once told me the SNAP program exacerbates diabetes (his word was ‘caused’). Is SNAP correlated with diabetes or is something else at work?
Teasing apart the relationship between SNAP participation and diabetes is complicated by the fact that low-income individuals are both more likely to be SNAP participants and have a higher risk of developing diabetes.
Now, Speaker of the House, McCarthy and House Republicans want to strengthen work requirements on SNAP benefits.
McCarthy said food assistance work requirements were “weakened” during the Biden administration. During the pandemic, work requirements were relaxed, but go back into full effect on May 11.
“Incentives matter. And incentives today are out of whack,” McCarthy said, claiming that the way food assistance is delivered does not motivate able-bodied individuals to return to the workforce, adding there are more job openings than people who are looking for jobs today.
Food stamp eligibility has grown to the point that people who are not “food insecure” sometimes qualify. Food stamps are fungible in that they free up money that would have otherwise been spent on food. Thus, providing a debit card for free food really is just another way to give cash to constituents. One negative aspect is to the extent the benefits are greater than the food budget would otherwise have been, the SNAP program probably encourages overeating.