Policy Documents

Reforming Food Stamps to Promote Work and Reduce Poverty and Dependence

Robert Rector –
June 27, 2001

The Food Stamp program is one of the largest means-tested welfare programs in the nation. Although Food Stamps are given to a wide variety of individuals, 80 percent of Food Stamp aid goes to families with children. Of the aid going to families with children, some 85 percent goes to children in single parent or no parent families. Only 15 percent goes to married couples with children.

Although nearly all Food Stamp households contain working-age adults, few of these individuals are employed. Food Stamps foster patterns of long term dependence. Half of Food Stamp aid goes to individuals who have received aid 8.5 years or more.

The current Food Stamp program closely resembles the failed Aid to Families with Dependent Children program (AFDC) which was replaced by Congress in 1996. In fact, Food Stamps and AFDC could be termed twin entitlements. Like AFDC, the Food Stamp program predominantly assists single parent families who are dependent on welfare for long periods.

The welfare reform law of 1996 replaced AFDC with a new program: Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). This reform has been widely acknowledged as a tremendous success leading to dramatic drops in dependence and child poverty, increases in employment, and a slow down in the growth of out-of-wedlock child bearing. 

While critics of welfare reform said that it would throw millions of children into poverty, in fact, the opposite has occurred. The poverty rates of black children and children in single mother families are now at the lowest points in our nation's history.

Despite the close resemblance between Food Stamps and the old AFDC program, and despite the success of replacing AFDC with TANF, the Food Stamp program continues to operate in direct contradiction to the reform principles embodied in TANF. While the TANF program seeks to reduce caseloads, to minimize dependence, and to increase employment, the Food Stamp program seeks to maximize caseload and dependence. While TANF requires recipients to work as a condition of receiving aid, Food Stamps continue to provide long-term one-way handouts; work requirements are virtually non-existent.

The current Food Stamp program is a fossil embodying all the errors of the old War on Poverty. It provides one way handouts, rewards non-work and idleness, fosters long-term dependence, rewards and promotes out of wedlock childbearing. As such, the Food Stamp program actively harms children and increases poverty in the nation.

The Food Stamp program should be reformed in the same manner as the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program. Specifically, all able-bodied, non-elderly adults should be required to work as a condition of receiving aid. If a recipient cannot find a private sector job, he or she should perform community service work (workfare) or other activities directed at self-sufficiency. Individuals who refuse to engage in required activities should not receive aid.

If the Food Stamp program were reformed according to the principle set forth above, four outcomes would follow. The reform would produce:

  1. a substantial reduction in dependence;
  2. a substantial reduction in child poverty;
  3. an increase in employment; and,
  4. a reduction in out-of-wedlock child bearing.