During last week’s State of the Union address, President Donald Trump boasted of a drop in the number of food stamp recipients during his administration. “Nearly 5 million Americans have been lifted off food stamps,” he said, touting the statistic as a sign of economic prosperity. Conservative members of Congress responded with 15 seconds of applause.
Food stamp enrollment numbers have gone down significantly in recent years, but they could—and should—be much lower with better policy, according to welfare reform advocates.
The latest month-by-month data released in September 2018 from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the government entity that oversees food stamp distribution, showed a decrease of 4.1 million recipients since Trump’s inauguration. If the trend were to continue, that difference would reach the 5 million mark later this month.
Food stamp enrollment has declined steadily since 2013, with a steeper fall in the past two years. One of the biggest drops came under the Obama administration in 2016, when several states reinstated work requirements for SNAP that they had lifted during the Great Recession, when not enough jobs were available. The change immediately disqualified almost a million recipients.
At the same time, the economy was also improving. The national unemployment rate dropped to 3.7 percent late last year, the lowest in almost 50 years. The rate has steadily fallen since hitting a high of 10 percent in 2009, a shift that seems to correlate with the decrease in food stamp recipients.
Some wonder why the number of SNAP recipients, now at about 38.5 million, hasn’t fallen more. There are still twice as many people on food stamps now as there were in 2002, and the economy is stronger in many respects now than it was then, leading some experts to think the number of people requiring nutrition assistance should be down to pre-recession levels.
Robert Doar, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, argued that the reason why so many people are still on food stamps lies with SNAP requirements. “There are still millions of work-capable adults on SNAP’s rolls who do not work at all,” he wrote in September. Broad exceptions to the SNAP work requirement and inconsistent implementation of the rules mean only 30 percent of SNAP recipients who should be working are working, according to the House Agriculture Committee.
The Trump administration tried to shore up the SNAP work requirements in last year’s Farm Bill but couldn’t get enough support in Congress. Now the administration is attempting to implement the change by revising the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s regulations to limit states’ ability to waive the work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents. That proposal is open for public comment until April 2.
Changing the work requirements for SNAP won’t address one of the root causes of the problem: unstable families. Doar pointed out that poverty is two to four times as likely in single-parent homes. “Family structure clearly matters in making sure that children do not go hungry, and poverty fighters would be wise to acknowledge that,” he said. Maybe the key to being better off than we were years ago is creating a culture that supports the family, rather than just trying to pick up the broken pieces.