Economists disagree on surging food stamp costs. Some only fault the economy; others fixate on tweaks that boosted benefits and eased eligibility. The truth lies somewhere in between.
But while these details matter, we must not miss the forest for the trees. Neither side in Washington has gone to bat for the poor, and it’s time for conservatives to step up to the plate.
1. The problem isn’t freeloading. It’s the anemic “recovery.” Recent work by Harvard economists shows that local unemployment drove the vast majority of SNAP enrollment from 2007-11. Another study shows that use of benefits during the Recession closely mirrored previous downturns. So whether or not participants could make do with smaller payments, the enrollment surge has not been excessive. Food stamps are going where jobs are not.
Some complain that uptake shouldn’t rise as unemployment falls. But conservatives themselves have long insisted that unemployment rates mislead us, since discouraged Americans who quit looking for work actually improve the statistic. Rightly so!
A better metric is the employment-to-population ratio:
Brutal. And the pain is especially concentrated on the poor. Since low earners tend to have the shortest resumes and the least education, their prospects vanish when overqualified job-seekers flood the marketplace. Slowdowns hurt everyone, but they make the bottom rungs of the career ladder the slipperiest of all. Poor Americans today face a job market as bad as the Great Depression.
Naturally, zero jobs means zero opportunity to earn income:
Poor families have yet to regain an inch of lost ground, and things were hardly stellar to begin with. It is senseless to feign shock that a job-free Wall Street recovery for the wealthy has not made dependency disappear.
2. Besides, the real safety net isn’t busting the budget. It’s helpful to distinguish means-tested transfers—which only kick in below a certain income—from universal entitlements for all Americans. The former may be easier to trash-talk, but it’s the latter that break the bank:
SNAP, TANF, and all the other small-bore programs that constitute our true safety net—along with everything else government does—are part of the dark green line that Medicare and Medicaid alone surpass in two decades. Our real debt drivers are the massively expensive promises that middle-class Americans made to themselves last century and aren’t keen to rein in.
A country this broke cannot afford poverty, a socioeconomic cancer that devours human capital. Yet safety net spending has actually fallen since 2010, tracing an imaginary recovery that doesn’t exist in poor America:
Of course SNAP merits scrutiny and prudent cost-cutting. All federal programs do. But major cutbacks should hardly be top priority for serious fiscal conservatives.
3. The president has failed the poor. Endless talk of “pivoting to jobs” has generated many speeches but little substance, other than counterproductive calls to hike the minimum wage. Liberals have resisted any effort to right-size middle-class entitlements and refocus on core poverty relief. Our status quo persists, immoral and insolvent:
This represents an enormous opening: Conservatives could score points on both politics and principle if they take up the task of prioritizing America’s poor.
The right is right that free enterprise, not sclerotic social democracy, is the way to spark the growth that struggling Americans need. But rolling back the safety net before those new jobs exist is politically senseless and bad policy besides.