Food Stamps Debate Deserves Facts, Not Myths

Food stamps should be every conservative's favorite benefit program. It's a rare success story with a narrow mission, costs that link directly to impact, and a proven record of effectiveness. An April 2012 USDA report credited the program with singlehandedly reducing the prevalence of poverty by 4.4 percent from 2000 to 2009.

Food stamps are the bottom layer of the social safety net. Even if you think government generally does too much, surely it can step in to prevent the elderly, poor, and sick from going hungry. A society that leaves these people to die is hardly a society at all.

Yet Congress has food stamps on the chopping block, with the House voting last week to approve a food bill that excludes food stamps altogether. From 1973 until this year, Congress authorized farm spending and food stamps in a single food bill, passed every five years. This union of unlikely bedfellows resulted from a standing bipartisan agreement between rural and urban representatives designed to ensure that both programs had enough votes to survive. It was one of those great compromises that now sadly seems like a relic of a wiser era.

As of last week, the deal is off. Republicans have carved food stamps out of the food bill for the purpose of gutting the program as far as Democrats will let them.

Put aside whether divorcing farm spending and food stamps is a good idea. (It's not, if you support either farm spending or food stamps. The Farm Bureau, National Farmers' Union, and other agricultural groups, not to mention every House Democrat and 12 House Republicans, recognized that the traditional agreement was good for all parties, and opposed the split.)

More disturbing are the circumstances that led House Republicans to think they could get away with cutting food stamps, specifically, the popular demonization of the food stamps program and the low-income people who rely on it. Characterizing the poor as greedy and corrupt is a form of class warfare older than Marie Antoinette but unfortunately still prevalent today. A whole mythology has emerged: "they mostly use food stamps for cigarettes and booze," "I heard someone used food stamps for 10 big steaks," "they trade food stamps for cash and buy big-screen TVs." Because these stories get repeated, some people want or need to believe them, others don't want to get into an argument, and many are fortunate enough not to be exposed to food stamps in their daily lives, these myths not only become accepted as true, but come to define the food stamps program.

Don't buy it. The error rate in the food stamps program is 3 percent, and percentage of benefits illegally converted to cash is 1 percent. Any incidence of overpayment or fraud is unacceptable and should be aggressively rooted out, but it just isn't accurate to say the food stamps program is defined by rampant abuse. Nor is the program primarily a handout for the unemployed or lazy; over 90 percent of funds go to the elderly, working families, or the seriously disabled.

Most important is that any conversation about fraud, while legitimate, should be ancillary to a fundamental discussion of what the food stamps program is and does. Food stamps allow the poor to purchase food. The program is humane and effective, sometimes empowering people to rise out of poverty and sometimes literally saving lives. Far fewer people abuse food stamps than legitimately benefit from them. Cutting or eliminating this program because of limited fraud is like closing a school because a handful of students are cheating. You wouldn't think of it.

Right now, the myths have the upper hand over the facts, which is why House Republicans felt emboldened to throw out a 40-year agreement and threaten the future of food stamps. Let's treat the food stamp program as what it really is -- an admittedly imperfect but successful and critically important component of a modern social safety net.