Fix food stamps, don’t merely cut

Published on Friday, 21 June 2013 22:02 - Written by

House Republicans show they still haven’t learned to pick their battles. As they debate the nearly $500 billion Farm Bill, they’re threatening to cut $2 billion from the food stamps program.

That’s an insignificant cut, and it just looks mean. A far better target for those budget knives is the mass of agriculture subsidies and government-backed insurance programs that are distorting the market and making food prices higher than they would otherwise be.

On the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (the formal name of food stamps), the GOP is sending a mixed message. Right now, Republicans are laying the groundwork for 2014 campaigns that will point out most Americans never felt the economic recovery the Obama administration has touted. Many Americans are still struggling.

Why, then, should the House cut food stamps — at a time when Republicans acknowledge so many families still need them?

What’s more, the food stamps cut (four times as large as the cut that passed the Senate) goes against the GOP’s bedrock principle of devolving power to the states and localities. “Fixing” a problem at the federal level usually only makes things more difficult at the state level.

And cutting food stamps isn’t the same thing as reforming food stamps. It’s a misguided attempt to “starve the beast,” a strategy Republicans have tried before. The theory is that if you fund less government, you’ll get less government.

But that’s not what happens if you merely cut funding and leave programs in place; the programs will inevitably grow back. It’s part of how the federal budget works.

It’s true the food stamps program is in need of reform. And it’s being reformed — at the state level. Many states are limiting the amount of junk food and sugary sodas that can be purchased with food stamps.

That’s even happening at the local level in many cities.

“The mayors of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and 15 other cities are reviving a push against letting food stamps be used to buy soda and other sugary drinks,” the Associated Press reports.

There are some fascinating innovations taking place across the nation, including here in East Texas. In Smith County, food stamps can be used at farmers’ markets, and the Northeast Texas Public Health District is extending the buying power of some WIC recipients.

In Michigan, a non-profit group is doing much the same thing, with a focus on locally grown produce.

“Here’s how it works: customers present their Bridge benefits card, get the wooden tokens that allow them to shop at the farmers’ stalls, and also receive up to $20 in matching silver tokens that can be used exclusively to buy fruits and vegetables grown in Michigan,” The Atlantic magazine reports.

Who benefits? The poor — and local farmers.

That’s what federalism is all about. States were meant to be the laboratories of democracy. If such a program works in Texas or Michigan, then other states can adopt something similar.

Cuts to the food stamps program are unwise, and they show the House GOP isn’t paying attention.