Nutrition

Will the GOP's Plan to Cut Off Food Stamps Put People to Work?


A customer using food stamps at a supermarket in Brooklyn

Photograph by Andrew Henderson/The New York Times via Redux

A customer using food stamps at a supermarket in Brooklyn

Updated with the results of Thursday’s vote.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) is seeking passage of a bill that would kick able-bodied Americans off food stamps. The legislation, which is slated to come up for a vote on the House floor Thursday, would reduce spending on food stamps by $39 billion over 10 years, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. An estimated 2.8 million people would lose eligibility for food stamps in an average year over the coming decade under two main provisions of the bill. (Update: The bill passed the House Thursday with 217 Republican votes — exactly the number needed. Every Democrat voted no, along with 15 Republicans.)

The proposal is designed to put more people to work, but it runs up against an unpleasant reality: an unemployment rate of 7.3 percent. Cantor’s “get-a-job” message rings hollow when there are few jobs to be had. Many of the people who would be forced off food stamps would simply end up going hungry, say experts at anti-poverty organizations.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has been poking holes in the Virginia Republican’s plan. Today Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy, posted a blog entry called “Setting the Record Straight on SNAP, Part 10: Cantor’s Misleading Defense of the House SNAP Bill.”

Cantor is right about one thing: “A thriving economy that creates jobs is the most effective weapon against hunger.” The problem, of course, is that the U.S. doesn’t have a thriving economy; the “most effective weapon” has been blunted. (Who and what are to blame for the weakness of the economy is a separate issue.)

The current food stamp law dates back to 1996. It says that ABAWDs—Washington’s endearing nickname for “able-bodied adults without dependents”—can receive food stamps for only three months per three-year period unless they are working at least 20 hours a week or participating in a training program.

But it’s not just jobs that are scarce; training programs are, too. Recognizing that the poor are out of options, governors in most states have sought and received waivers to keep ABAWDs on food stamp rolls for longer than three months on account of high unemployment in their states. It’s those waivers that Cantor and other Republicans are hoping to terminate. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities puts it, the bill targets “some of the poorest people in America.”

Coy_190
Coy is Bloomberg Businessweek's economics editor. His Twitter handle is @petercoy.

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