The Common Good

Why Every American Benefits from Food Stamps

Newt Gingrich now regularly refers to President Obama as the “Food Stamp President.” Why?

Since late 2007, caseloads for the program formerly known as Food Stamps (now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program -- SNAP) have risen sharply.

These numbers are significant; about 14.2 million more people have started receiving benefits under President Obama. Still, this is just behind the record number of 14.7 million additional recipients added under President George W. Bush.

So, what’s the significance? President Obama has had a lot shorter time in office than President Bush did, should we be worried?

When I look at the numbers, I’m not concerned about the growth of SNAP under President Obama, I’m surprised at it’s growth under President Bush.

SNAP, as a program, is supposed to kick into high gear during an economic downturn. When the economy does well, enrollment should go down. When the economy does poorly the numbers are supposed to go up.

It's encouraging that we actually saw a decline of 43,528 people enroll back in October. Projections put spending on the SNAP program as a percentage of GDP peaking out this year around .5 percent and then expecting a steady decline until 2021, where the level is expected to return to what it was in 2005.

SNAP projections

This is SNAP working as it should.

It’s this next chart that is concerning.

While general economic growth slowed significantly after 9/11/2001 and then again in the later part of 2007, the economy as a whole (as measured by GDP) was growing while President Bush was in office. If the economy is growing, and the benefits are at least somewhat equitably shared throughout the population, then the use of the SNAP program should decline. But, they didn't.

Part of this is due to changes in eligibility during that time, but it also points to the kind of growth our country experienced. Growth was heavily concentrated into the upper echelons of income earners while growth did not keep up with increased cost of living for a significant portion of the country.

It’s natural to assume that vulnerable people are going to need more help during hard times. But, something has gone wrong when they need more help in a time of extended prosperity.

SNAP is a very efficient program -- 92 percent of Federal SNAP spending goes directly to benefits, error rates continue to decline, and it has kept millions out of poverty during the downturn. 

This is good news for us all, not just the direct beneficiaries.

SNAP serves as an automatic economic stabilizer. It provides a known bottom to the market for food which allows farmers, bankers and investors to have a higher degree of certainty of what the demand for their products will be.

Famines are still all too common in parts of the world. But they have been almost entirely eliminated from developed countries. One factor in that has been programs like SNAP.

No matter how bad the economy is, farmers know that people will have at least some money for food. This is a factor in getting them the loans they need to plant next year’s crops. If they weren’t able to get the loans, they wouldn’t be able to plant the crops. A significant decrease in the amount of food on the market means a significant increase in price for the remaining food on the market. That's not a good thing for any of us.

First, I don't think acknowledging that President Obama has presided over the effective administration of a program that has provided basic nutrition for those in need should be considered an insult. It is, I would argue, to our country's great credit that in America we do not leave the vulnerable to starve or die of malnutrition, as occurred during the Great Depression and still goes on in other parts of the world today. 

Second, Gingrich is missing the point by focusing on absolute numbers outside of the context of the need that exists. The deeper concern is why the previous administration presided over an extended period of great plenty for some but great need for others.  

"Food Stamp President" might be a good applause line for Gingrich with whatever demographic he is trying to reach but it certainly doesn't sound like the Lincoln-Douglas style thinking and debate he has said he would deliver. 

Tim King is Communications Director for Sojourners. Follow Tim on Twitter @TMKing.

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