Of course, it would be an easy thing to target wasteful and frivolous spending such as using public money for such essential projects as paying Buffalo residents to keep a daily journal of malt liquor and marijuana use and to study the role the arctic environment played in the evolution of civic life during the Viking Age, both of which received funding through the $800 billion-plus Obama stimulus package. These projects are of interest to only a select few and do not, as far as I can tell, provide a sufficient benefit to the general welfare of the nation to justify the expense. These expenses are just examples of a broken system of allocating federal money.
But my focus here is on another type of benefit.
First, a little background. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or “SNAP,” is the current name for the Food Stamp Program which began as a permanent government program in 1964 to “strengthen the agricultural economy and to provide improved levels of nutrition among low-income households.” At that time, the Department of Agriculture, which administers the program, estimated that participation in a national Food Stamp Program would eventually reach 4 million persons, at a cost of $360 million annually.
As a result of various factors, including population and geographic expansion, according to the USDA website, “in December, 1979, participation finally surpassed 20 million. In March 1994, participation hit a new high of 28 million.”
The program continued to expand regardless of which political party was in control of the Congress or the White House. However, the number of person receiving assistance remained steady at 28 million until late 2008.
Since then the program has exploded. As of March, the last month for which figures are available, 46.4 million people were receiving federally supported food assistance at an average monthly rate of $133.20 per person. This equates to an expenditure of almost $6.2 billion per month and an annual outlay of over $74 billion in federal food and nutrition assistance. By contrast, in 2008, the annual cost was approximately $35 billion.
Today more than one in seven Americans are receiving food stamps, which are now administered through a convenient debit card called an EBT card. One in seven. And that astounding number is apparently not sufficient for the bureaucrats in the Agriculture Department. They want to add more people to the rolls of recipients.
However, although it has the potential to spiral out of control, if it has not already, the expenditure which caught my attention is not the ever-growing amount spent monthly or annually to provide the food stamp benefit.
The expenditure that amazed me is relatively small and is apparently geared toward helping to provide access to what has become a common government assistance benefit. According to a recent CNN Money article, the Department of Agriculture is currently spending between $2.5 million and $3 million running paid media advertisements in a number of markets encouraging eligible persons to enroll in the SNAP program. This is not a new campaign by the Department. According to the CNN article, the USDA began running paid radio advertisements in 2004 during the Bush administration.
The federal budget is headed for yet another $1.5 trillion deficit. The national debt is growing at the rate of $1 million every 72 seconds. Why is the Department of Agriculture spending $3 million in an effort to expand the food stamp program rather than focusing on ways to save money in the program?
Jerry Landers is an attorney in Marietta.