Tom Vilsack is one of the most important welfare administrators in the nation. Oh, yeah he's also secretary of agriculture.
Two-thirds of the Agriculture Department's budget is devoted to welfare programs. The biggest is food stamps, which is now the nation's second-largest welfare program after Medicaid. Its inexorable growth during the past decade, through good times and bad, is a testament to government's self-generating expansion.
Asked what labor wanted, the great 20th-century union leader Samuel Gompers answered, "More." The modern welfare state lives by the same credo. About 17 million people received food stamps back in 2000. Some 30 million received them in 2008. Roughly 46 million people receive them today. From 1 in 50 Americans on food stamps at the program's national inception in the 1970s, 1 in 7 Americans are on them now.
The grinding recession accounts for much of the increase the past few years, but not for its entirety. Spending on food stamps doubled between 2001 and 2006, even though unemployment was low in those years. Even when the economy is projected to improve in the future, usage of food stamps will remain elevated above historic norms. Food Stamp Nation is here to stay.
One of its pillars is so-called categorical eligibility, which means that if someone is eligible for another welfare program, he is presumptively eligible for food stamps. In 2000, the Clinton administration issued regulations saying that merely getting a noncash welfare benefit could make someone eligible. Getting a welfare brochure or referred to an 800 number for services is enough to qualify in almost all the states. In Vermont, receiving a bookmark with a telephone number and website for services is enough.
Categorical eligibility effectively wiped out the program's old asset test (i.e., you couldn't have $30,000 in the bank and get food stamps), although income limitations still apply. In the Obama stimulus, the work requirement was suspended, too, and hasn't been restored. The requirement had discouraged young, able-bodied nonparents from utilizing the program; there are millions of them on food stamps. The bottom line is that government at all levels actively wants people on the program.
Newt Gingrich famously calls Barack Obama "the food-stamp president." But the first president worthy of the moniker was George W. Bush. His administration brought a Madison Avenue element to the otherwise unreconstructed Great Society program. Not everyone who is eligible for food stamps knows it or wants to sign up. Bush began a recruitment campaign. In the same vein, the Obama administration is running radio ads hailing food stamps as a way to lose weight. At the local level, county governments spread the word and work to overcome residual cultural resistance to taking government benefits. The federal government pays $50 million in bonuses to states for signing people up.
That the food-stamps program is part of the farm bill now up for debate in Congress is itself a scam, an exercise in rural-urban logrolling that gives everyone an interest in seeing the bill pass.
As every level of government works to grow the program, attempts to scale it back are predictably savaged. When Jeff Sessions, a Republican senator from Alabama, advocated reforms to save $20 billion out of a $770 billion budget for food stamps during the next decade, he was portrayed as a Dickensian villain. The New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand accused him of not caring about kids and insisted that food stamps are an engine of economic growth, since every $1 spent on the program allegedly generates $1.71 in economic activity. There's nothing, apparently, that food stamps can't do.
Needless to say, there are destitute people who need help. But the goal should be to reduce dependence on food stamps to historic levels after the recession, and restore the asset test, re-establish a work requirement and implement a better system for income verification. When almost 15 percent of Americans are on food stamps, the government should reacquaint itself with two words: "too much."