WASHINGTON -- Democrats look at the food stamps program and see an essential piece of a fraying safety net. Republicans see entitlement spending gone wild. This fierce debate is to be joined soon in the House when Republicans plan to take up a mean-spirited measure that would cut spending on the program by a whopping $40 billion over the next decade -- twice the original House proposal and 10 times the trims envisioned by the Senate.
The raw numbers offer some explanation for conservative concern. Spending on food stamps (technically, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) has mushroomed from $35 billion in 2007 to $83 billion. In an average month, nearly 48 million people -- one in seven U.S. residents -- receive benefits.
But those figures actually demonstrate a program working as intended in an economic downturn. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the weak economy was responsible for 65 percent of the cost growth between 2007 and 2011; another 20 percent was due to a stimulus-funded boost in benefits, set to expire in November. The remainder reflected factors such as higher food prices and lower income among beneficiaries.
Indeed, CBO projects that as the economy recovers and the labor market slowly follows, enrollment and costs will drop to 34 million recipients and $73 billion by 2023. Unlike federal health care programs, under the twin pressures of an aging population and costs rising faster than inflation, food stamps are not a long-term driver of the budget deficit.
A few other tidbits: Benefits are modest, averaging $1.40 per meal. Three-fourths of households receiving benefits include a child, a person over 60 or someone who is disabled. The average household receiving benefits in 2010 had annual income of $8,800.
The Fox News-promoted poster boy for abuse, California surfer dude Jason Greenslate, using his $200 in monthly benefits to gorge on lobster and sushi, is infuriating but he is hardly typical. More than 80 percent of food stamps households with an able-bodied adult worked in the year before or after receiving benefits.
Imaginary platoons of Greenslates are behind the latest Republican proposal. The biggest, and benign-sounding change, would buttress existing requirements that limit able-bodied adults without children to three months of benefits out of every three years, unless they are working 20 hours per week or participating in a job training or workfare program.
The theory makes sense -- as with welfare reform, individuals who are able to work and simply choose not to do so, so-called ABAWDs (Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents) should not be able to simply sit back and collect benefits. No more Greenslates!
Under current law, however, states have the flexibility to request waivers from the strict three-month limit during times of high unemployment. In the current downturn, nearly every state has obtained such a waiver. The proposal being floated by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia would eliminate the waivers, except for a sliver of the population. No work, no food stamps -- even if there are no jobs.
This cruel change is aimed at the most desperate of populations, childless adults ineligible for most other federal income assistance programs. Their average income is a paltry 22 percent of the poverty level, about $2,500. According to the Government Accountability Office, they tend to "lack basic skills, such as reading and computer literacy" that could help them find work.
A similarly perverse change involving recipients with children -- a version of which has already passed the House -- would actually encourage states to kick families with children as young as 1 off the food stamp rolls if they are not working or in training programs. States that participate could keep half the savings in reduced SNAP caseloads; states that decline to take part would lose some benefits.
For all the chest-thumping about the importance of work, another piece of the Republican proposal would make it harder for working families to qualify for food stamps if their gross income or assets are slightly above the cutoff but they have additional expenses, such as child care, or assets, such as a car they need to get to work. Aren't these people we want to encourage to hold jobs -- and to help feed their families?
Thankfully, the House Republican plan will not become law, but it sets an audacious new starting point for Senate negotiations. And it offers a disturbing glimpse of the stingy, punitive mindset of a radical majority, more intent on finding phantom slackers than serving the known needy.
Ruth Marcus is a columnist for The Washington Post. E-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org.
By RUTH MARCUS