Helping the Non-Needy

Co-authored by Lisa Conyers

Now that charities' holiday solicitations are building toward their annual climax, you may notice that you're giving more money to the needy than you usually do. What you probably don't realize is that you've been giving tax money to the non-needy all year long, thanks to a costly -- and peculiar -- feature of the federal food stamp program formally known as SNAP.

Picture this: Kevin, a college student from a solidly middle-class family in Washington State, is at a food bank with a friend who sometimes picks up donations there. A woman with a clipboard approaches them. "Are you college students?" she asks. When they say "Yes," she asks a second question: "Did you know you're entitled to food stamps?" And then she says, "Let's get you signed up. We can get you $200 today."

Kevin interrupted, he told us. "I get money from my parents for food, and I'm not poor."

"But you're a college student, and if you work part-time or do work study on campus or get federal student loans I can sign you up," the woman said.

That woman, a recruiter, is part of a widespread effort to enroll every American who qualifies for benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, regardless of whether or not they need them or want them. In Florida, recruiters host bingo games in senior centers so the seniors can enjoy the game and get enrolled at the same time. To some recruiters' surprise, seniors can be a tough sell. Many argue that they are doing fine and would rather to leave the funds for someone who really needs help. "I don't want to be another person depending on the government," one reluctant senior said. "How about being another person getting the help you deserve?" is what the recruiter responded.

Recruiters are paid by contractors hired by state governments. And no wonder, given that the SNAP program brings billions of federal dollars into the states.

Today, SNAP is our second largest welfare program (Medicaid being the largest). Nearly one in six Americans -- 47 million people -- now get food stamp benefits intended for the poor. But researchers David Armor and Sonia Sousa have calculated that many beneficiaries are not poor. Nearly 8 million Americans with incomes at or above 200 percent of poverty -- that's $45,600 for a family of four -- are receiving benefits and more than half of today's SNAP beneficiaries are above the official poverty line.

In other words, the SNAP program, which costs taxpayers over $82 billion annually (up from $18 billion in 2000), is helping students, middle-class working families, seniors and many others it was never intended to help.

As is true of most government programs, this one just grows and grows. And American taxpayers are paying those recruiters to keep it growing.

Recent figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture tell us that 36.8 percent of SNAP recipients remain on food stamps for over 20 months, with fewer than 25 percent leaving it in a year or less, despite the fact that it includes a work requirement. Food stamp beneficiaries are supposed to be looking for work or working. And some do. But the work requirements are almost never enforced. "Oh yeah," Dave told us in Decatur, Illinois, "You just go in the office every month and sign a paper saying you're looking for work, and they renew your benefits."

A bright spot: In more than 100 interviews we conducted with welfare beneficiaries, we found that most SNAP recipients -- as well as those who benefit from other welfare programs -- want to work. "Don't keep us down," said Liz in Durango, Colorado. "Give us programs that will help us get back up." Sadly these programs are doing more to keep people poor than to help them out of poverty.

The answer where SNAP is concerned? Fire those recruiters. Tighten the eligibility requirements. And start enforcing the mandated work requirements for those who are able to work. The state of Maine is doing just that. "We must continue to do all that we can to eliminate generational poverty and get people back to work," governor Paul LePage declared, talking about Maine's recent decision to start enforcing work requirements.

But for too many people, food stamps and other welfare programs have induced a persistent dependence that is especially pernicious at this time of year.

Phil Harvey and Lisa Conyers are at work on a book that reveals the unintended consequences of welfare reform and includes first-hand testimony from welfare recipients across the country.