This year the U.S. Department of Agriculture misspent $2.4 billion on food stamps, according to a November report from the USDA Office of Inspector General.
“Misspending” means the USDA gave a household either more or less food stamp benefits than it should have received. Historical data shows most misspending results in overpayments.
Although $2.4 billion may be a relatively small portion of overall food stamp spending, that fact itself should raise concerns. Food stamps is a massive program costing roughly $80 billion in fiscal year 2013, up from approximately $40 billion in fiscal year 2008 and less than $20 billion in fiscal year 2000.
Part of the increase in spending can be traced to the recession, but a lot is related to policies that have made it easier for people to get on food stamps and remain there. Even as the economy improves, the cost of the food stamps program is projected to remain near record levels.
As the Heritage Foundation’s 2014 Index of Culture and Opportunity shows, food stamp participation has skyrocketed. In 1970, less than 10 million people received food stamps. Three decades later it was around 20 million. Today, close to 50 million Americans are on the program.
The food stamps program is in need of reform. First and foremost, policymakers should focus on promoting work. As Heritage’s Robert Rector and Katherine Bradley explain:
Food stamps should be transformed from an open-ended entitlement program that gives one-way handouts into a work activation program. Non-elderly, able-bodied adults who receive benefits should be required to work, prepare for work or at least look for work as a condition of receiving aid.
Rector and Bradley’s analysis of 2010 data revealed, “Among the 10.5 million food stamp households with able-bodied, non-elderly adults, 5.5 million performed zero work during the month. Another 1.5 million to 2 million households had employment but appeared to work less than 30 hours per week. Altogether, each month, some 7 million to 7.5 million work-capable households received food stamps while performing no work or working less than 30 hours per week.”
Welfare programs should be based on sound principles. Americans are willing to help those in need, but they also believe that people must do what they can for themselves. Policymakers should pursue welfare reform that encourages self-sufficiency. Reforming food stamps to include a work requirement is a good step forward.