House Republicans said Sunday that they wanted to cut $16.5 billion from the food stamp program over the next five years by establishing strict new work requirements for recipients and by trimming the growth in benefits.
The proposal represents a fundamental shift in the design of the program, which serves as the ultimate safety net for more than 27 million poor Americans.
It is one piece of a huge bill intended to free poor people from dependence on government while vastly increasing the power of state officials to run their own welfare programs free of federal supervision. Democrats say the overall bill is cruel to women and children because it would, for example, scrap the national school lunch program and give the money to the states as well as bar the use of federal money to provide cash assistance to unmarried teenagers.
The food stamp proposal would cut $16.5 billion, or 11 percent, from the $149 billion that would otherwise be spent on food stamps in the next five years.
The Republican plan would require hundreds of thousands of able-bodied adults without children to find work within 90 days of getting food stamps. It would also reduce the annual cost-of-living adjustment for food stamp recipients, which provides additional benefits to match increases in food costs.
Republicans say the changes are needed to control the cost of the program. Democrats call the proposed cutbacks Draconian, and they say the work requirement would end benefits for many people who are unable to find jobs.
More than 27 million people receive food stamps, up from 20 million in 1990. The economy has improved significantly in the last few years, and unemployment has fallen. But the number of people on the food stamp rolls keeps rising, as does the cost of the program, $25 billion last year.
The Republican plan, to be considered this week by the House Agriculture Committee, is likely to win approval in the full House. The outlook in the Senate is less clear.
Under the plan, food stamp spending would still rise from year to year. But recipients could not buy as much with their coupons because the monthly food stamp allotment would not keep pace with inflation.
Food stamps are described as the ultimate safety net because eligibility is based almost entirely on a person’s income and assets. Single people and childless couples with low incomes can get food stamps but usually cannot get cash benefits under other federal welfare programs like Aid to Families With Dependent Children.
The new proposal supplements a Republican plan, already modified several times, that would give states the option of running their own food assistance programs in place of food stamps. States choosing that option would get a lump sum of federal money roughly equal to the value of their food stamp benefits in 1994, with no adjustment for inflation in food prices.
But the federal government would still set policy for the national food stamp program. And the Republican plan says that able-bodied food stamp recipients from 18 to 50 years old “will be required to find work.”
“These persons will be ineligible for food stamps after three months unless they are employed at least 20 hours per week or are participating in a workfare program,” it says.
In workfare programs, people must do public service work in return for food stamp benefits. But the Republican proposal would not require states to operate such programs or provide money for them. Only a half-dozen states have workfare for food stamp recipients, and the programs are all small, with fewer than 100,000 participants nationwide.
Robert Greenstein, director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, who was head of the Food and Nutrition Service in the Carter administration, said, “These proposals would eliminate the only part of the safety net that remains for large numbers of indigent people who receive no other government assistance.”
The bill, he said, “would end food stamp benefits after just three months for hundreds of thousands of people who wanted to work and searched for jobs but couldn’t find them.”