A Profile that Paints a Far Too Benign Picture of the Republicans' Proposed SNAP Changes

The Washington Post today published a profile of Florida Republican Rep. Steve Southerland, focusing on his attack on the SNAP -- formerly food stamps --program. It's a piece I found interesting, even inspiring at points; as I read it, I began to see the Congressman in a different light. Unfortunately, the piece suffers from such mammoth omissions that it is ultimately quite misleading.

While it's easy to portray Rep. Southerland and the SNAP bill the House just passed as waging an ideological war not just on the poor but on the nutritionally deprived poor, he seems truly motivated by the belief that people ought to work to improve their well-being and that of their family. I agree and I suspect not only most WaPo readers, but most poor families, including those on SNAP, would agree as well. The article actually features the Congressman interacting with such folks (SNAP recipients in a job training program).

So, if you're a member of Congress and that's where your heart and your head are, it should lead you to craft legislation that helps create workplace opportunities for able-bodied, adult SNAP recipients (most SNAP recips, btw, are elderly or kids; of those able to work, the majority are quite connected to the job market). And that's what the profile suggests Southerland and his colleagues have done, only to face knee-jerk opposition from Democrats.

Here's how the WaPo describes the bill, making it sound like Southerland really pulled his punches to come with a mild, benign set of "reforms":

Even though he believed in a 40-hour workweek, his proposal would mandate only 20. Even though he wanted it to be a national requirement, states would be able to implement or ignore it. There would be exemptions for the elderly, the disabled and mothers with children under 1.

Sounds benign, right? Here's what the bill they passed actually does:

-- Allows states to throw unemployed parents and their children off of SNAP if the parents want a job or a slot in a job-training program but none are available. Yes, that's voluntary from the states' perspective, but for the first time in the history of food stamps, their bill incentivizes states to reduce the rolls, by letting them keep 50 percent of the federal funds that would otherwise pay for food for the poor and use those funds for anything else they want, including tax cuts.

-- In areas with high unemployment, states now can waive SNAP's three month time limit on food assistance for unemployed childless adults. This bill eliminates that right. It requires that such individuals be tossed off SNAP after 90 days if they can't find a job, regardless of how hard they're looking and how tough the job market is.

-- Remarkably, the bill also eliminates food assistance to certain low-paid working families. For example, it would terminate benefits for working families whose gross income is slightly above the SNAP eligibility level (130 percent of poverty, or $2,000 a month for a parent with two kids) but who incur high child-care costs and thus have disposable income below the poverty line.

According to the non-partisan CBO, the House bill would deny SNAP benefits to 3.8 million people next year, including adults who want to work but can't find a job. It is for these reasons -- not, as the article suggests, kneejerk defense of the poor -- that Democrats opposed the bill (in fact, Senate Democrats have also proposed SNAP cuts, though far smaller and more surgical than those in the House bill).

Look, this whole SNAP/work debate is really miscast. Yes, the SNAP rolls have climbed sharply and yes, they remain historically elevated. But as I've stressed in numerous posts, that increase is primarily about the economy, especially the job market, which was terribly weak and is only slowly getting better (believe me, it the SNAP rolls were linked to the stock market, they'd be coming down).

Insisting SNAP recipients find jobs or lose their benefits cannot legitimately be labeled a "work requirement" if all it does is cut people off when they can't find a job.

In fact, as the job market has begun to improve, the SNAP rolls have stabilized. And, according to predictions by CBO, as the economic recovery proceeds, the rolls will decline such that by 2019, the costs of the program are expected to fall to their 1995 levels as a share of the economy. In the WaPo piece, however, this non-partisan forecast is presented as just another dimension of the political argument, with no acknowledgement of the CBO forecast:

[House Democrats] disagreed not only with Southerland's proposal but also with his diagnosis of the problem and with his facts.

He said food stamp spending was "growing into oblivion"; Democrats said it would decrease just as quickly once the economy improved.

Bottom line, SNAP expanded to meet the nutritional needs of the poor in the deepest recession since the depression -- a good example of a countercyclical program at work. As the job market recovers, the caseloads are expected to recede as current recipients find jobs and earn more. That's not a Democrat assumption; it's a statistical one based on a long history.

Like I said, Rep. Southerland comes across as well-intentioned. But he is ill-informed in ways the profile neglects to mention, and in doing so, the piece casts his reforms as far more benign than they are.

SNAP isn't broken. What's not working right now is the low-wage job market, and punishing the victims of that underperforming sector with these harsh, radical changes to the SNAP program will only deepen their poverty.