Working on Food Stamps

House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway on Thursday will introduce a farm bill, though food stamps absorb much of the cost. More than 40 million Americans are in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the official name for food stamps, and the figure is up from about 17 million in 2000. The size of the benefits has also increased, and the program cost has exploded to about $70 billion a year.

More Americans need assistance during recessions like 2008, but the question is why so many have stayed on food stamps even amid the long expansion. The American Enterprise Institute’s Robert Doar in 2014 compared the post-2008 recovery to the recession in the early 1980s. If folks had left the program at similar rates to the 1980s, food stamps would have had 36 million beneficiaries by 2013. Instead there were 47.6 million.

One result is that many Americans haven’t returned to the labor force. Enter the House’s first proposal: A 20 hours a week work requirement for able-bodied adults, ages 18 through 59. This usually elicits panic about child labor or single moms, but the requirement does not apply to seniors, children, the disabled, or anyone who cares for a child under six or is pregnant. That exemption covers roughly two-thirds of everyone on food stamps.

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