Protect Food Stamps, Not Junk Food

James Greiff is an editor for Bloomberg View. He was Wall Street news team leader at Bloomberg News and senior editor for Bloomberg Markets magazine. He previously reported on banking for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer.
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For more than 47 million Americans on food stamps, cuts baked into law are about to make life a little harder. To prevent even deeper cuts, food-stamp advocates might want to consider embracing an idea they hate.

Starting today, the amount of money the federal government devotes to food stamps will be cut as funding from the 2009 stimulus act expires. That may be just the half of it, if House Republicans have their way: In the works is a proposal to cut even more from a program that helps a seventh of the U.S. population avoid hunger.

The stimulus spending, by design, had an end date. The money, part of roughly $830 billion in spending increases and tax cuts, was meant to kick-start the economy and help those dealt an economic blow by the financial crisis. What almost no one counted on was that more than four years after the recession officially ended, the U.S. would be stumbling through the most anemic recovery in postwar history.

The reductions from the loss of the stimulus money may not seem like much: A cut of $36 a month for a family of four, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a policy-research group in Washington. A better way to look at it is how much money this leaves per meal per person, which at $1.40 isn't a whole lot.

The CBPP says that almost half of those who will be affected by the cuts, or 22 million, are children. Of those, about 10 million live in deep poverty, defined as a household with income of 50 percent or less than the poverty line of $23,600 for a family of four. Another 9 million who will see benefit reductions are elderly or disabled.

But with a budget of $78 billion, food stamps -- officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program -- are a tempting target for Republicans bent on cutting the federal deficit. For Republicans, the problems with food stamps aren't just their cost for taxpayers. There's a philosophical issue: As they see it, food stamps breed dependency, sapping initiative. Perhaps worse, these programs tend to benefit groups that lean Democratic.

So the House Agriculture Committee has worked up a bill that among other things cuts $39 billion from food stamps during the next decade. (A similar bill in the Senate, where Democrats have a majority, calls for $4 billion in food-stamp cuts.) This, predictably, has food-stamp advocates going ballistic.

Yet food-stamp proponents may have a bargaining chip that they so far have been unwilling to embrace, mainly because they see it, incorrectly, as a threat to the program itself. This chip comes in the form of a two-page bill called the Healthy Food Choices Act, which would stop food stamps being used to buy junk food and sugary drinks. This would bring food stamps in line with another program known as the Women, Infants and Children Food and Nutrition Service, which aids new mothers and their children.

Efforts to limit food-stamp usage usually spark spasms of outrage. Preventing someone from using their government benefits from buying candy or soft drinks would stigmatize food-stamp recipients and discourage some people who might qualify from signing up. This argument is absurd, considering that the government already bars use of food stamps for alcohol and tobacco.

By accepting limits on what kind of products food stamps can use, the program's advocates will have a stronger case to make against cuts that might harm the country's most vulnerable people.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net