Food stamps are the most inefficient, vastly expanding social welfare program in the country, according to a new study.
Forty-seven million people participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps, and costs have increased over 358 percent since 2000.
The increase in recent years cannot be attributed to the economic recession, according to Michael Tanner, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, but lax eligibility requirements and an aggressive campaign by governments to boost their rolls.
"This program has expanded rapidly over the last decade in a way that is not justified by the recession that we went through," Tanner said.
"There’s very little bang for all this increased buck."
Tanner’s report, "SNAP Failure: The Food Stamp Program Needs Reform," finds that in 2000 the cost of the food stamp program was just $17 billion. It has risen in cost to $78 billion today.
Spending on advertising and outreach for food stamps by federal and state governments has also increased, now amounting to $41.3 million a year.
States like Florida have hired "food stamp recruiters," who have a quota of signing up 150 new recipients each month. Rhode Island hosts "SNAP-themed bingo games," and the USDA tells its field offices to throw parties to get more people on their rolls.
Despite the additional spending, the USDA claims 18 million Americans are still "food insecure."
Tanner notes the program is more successful in breeding dependence on government, which was apparent last weekend when the EBT system shutdown in several states, resulting in chaos.
"The left is correct when they talk about how small food stamp benefits are, about an average of $4.50 a day," Tanner said. "And yet we’re told that people can’t survive without them."
"There’s something wrong in our society when people can’t survive without getting five bucks from the government," he said.
Food stamps have become the second most costly means-tested program behind Medicaid, and its expansion is credited to both Republicans and Democrats.
Tanner traces the modern food stamp program back to President Lyndon B. Johnson, who signed the Food Stamp Act of 1964. Not until the presidency of George W. Bush, however, did the program increase dramatically, and the pace has only accelerated under President Barack Obama.
The 2002 and 2008 farm bills under Bush expanded eligibility in the program to the extent that noncitizens qualify. By the start of Obama’s presidency, there were 31.8 million Americans enrolled, up from 17 million in 2000.
Under Obama, enrollment has surged to almost 48 million. While some chalk up the increase to the recession, Tanner finds little evidence that is the case.
"Increases in both participation and spending were bigger during this recession than in previous ones," he writes.
During the recession in the early 1980s enrollment only increased by 635,000, and spending rose by $124 million. In contrast, the latest recession saw enrollment jump by 12 million and spending increase by $30 billion.
"SNAP is no longer a program targeted at the poorest Americans who may need some temporary help, but it has become part of an ever-growing permanent welfare state," the report said.
Nearly 17 percent of recipients have income levels above the poverty line due to weak eligibility standards. Furthermore, a majority of recipients (56 percent) are on the program longer than 5 years, and fewer than 10 percent are on food stamps for six months or less.
Tanner said Congress has an opportunity to reform the program when reauthorizing the farm bill this year. House Republicans already passed a bill that would cut the program $39 billion over 10 years and create stricter work requirements.
"They’re talking about fairly modest reforms, and those are reforms that I do endorse," Tanner said. "But in the long run I think we need to take this in the context of the whole welfare system, which the question is what is the benefit of shifting money to Washington and then shipping it back to the states?"
Tanner suggests turning SNAP into a block grant as a first step to ultimately returning the program to the states.
SNAP is an "inefficient, fraud-ridden, and deeply troubled program," according to the report, with $858 million in direct fraud in 2012 and $2.2 billion a year in erroneous payments.