Photo Credit: John Decker/Sacramento Bee/

Photo Credit: John Decker/Sacramento Bee/

Recent data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture indicates that more than 23 million households—a record 20 percent—are now on food stamps. This is a dramatic increase from 15 million households in 2009.

Part of the growth is no doubt due to the weak economy. But problematic policies have also contributed to increased participation. One of these policies is “broad-based categorical eligibility.”

This policy—which was put into place in fiscal year 2000 and heavily pushed by the Obama Administration—allows states to completely bypass the asset test for food stamp applicants, meaning there is no limit to the amount of assets a household can have to qualify for food stamps as long as their income is low enough.

The food stamps program has no real work requirement, either. This means there isn’t a way to distinguish between individuals who truly need assistance and those who could otherwise work. It also means that able-bodied recipients are not encouraged to move toward work. Food stamp participation more than doubled among able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) during this time, growing by roughly 127 percent. In 2010, half of ABAWDs on the food stamp rolls performed zero work in the previous month, but even in good economic times, work rates are just as low. Currently, roughly 3.9 million ABAWDs receive food stamps.

Congress could have taken the opportunity of the farm bill to reform food stamps, but it didn’t. However, a new welfare reform proposal, introduced by Senator Mike Lee (R–UT) in February, includes a strong work requirement for food stamps. It would require able-bodied adults to work, prepare for work, or look for work in exchange for receiving food stamps.

The alarming growth in the number of food stamp recipients should signal the need to put this program on a more prudent path. Encouraging work is crucial to better helping individuals, both by promoting self-sufficiency and focusing assistance toward those most in need.