Research & Commentary: Food Stamp Reform

Published September 13, 2012

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), previously known as the Food Stamp program, has become one of the fastest-growing welfare programs of the U.S. government. SNAP is administered by the Department of Agriculture, and the benefits are distributed by individual states. Currently, SNAP is the fourth-largest means-tested program for low-income families and individuals. 

Eligibility has expanded considerably since the program’s inception, leading to huge growth in the number of people receiving SNAP benefits. When the food stamp program was first implemented nationally in the 1970s, just one in 50 Americans participated. Today, according to the Congressional Budget Office, one in seven Americans receive SNAP benefits, at a total cost of more than $6 billion per month. SNAP costs have doubled in the past five years, from $33 billion in 2006 to $78 billion in 2011. In that brief period, the number of people receiving SNAP benefits increased from 26 million to 45 million. 

Part of this inflation is caused by states that use categorical eligibility for SNAP: Recipients are determined not by the program’s income and asset limitations but by participation in other cash welfare assistance programs, which can have more relaxed eligibility standards. SNAP’s funding structure also inflates the recipient population: States have an incentive to increase the number of participants because the federal money they receive increases automatically as more people enroll. 

Efforts to reform SNAP were considered in amendments to the 2012 Farm Bill. Those reforms would have ended the bonuses states receive when they increase their food stamp participation. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that change could save $480 million over 10 years. A second amendment would have restored asset tests designed to ensure SNAP recipients meet eligibility requirements. That was estimated to save $11 billion over 10 years. Both amendments failed in the Senate. 

Reforms ensuring that recipients are both truly eligible and actively seeking work are needed. Both Congress and state legislators should take a closer look at such reforms before SNAP expenditures spiral out of control. 

The following documents examine the SNAP program from multiple perspectives.

Reforming the Food Stamp Program
Writing for The Heritage Foundation, Robert Rector and Katherine Bradley outline several areas where SNAP can be improved and returned to its intended role of encouraging work and self-sufficiency. “Congress and the Administration should transform food stamps into a program that encourages work and self-sufficiency, close eligibility loopholes, and, after the recession ends, reduce food stamp spending to pre-recession levels,” they write. 

Farm Bill Misses Crucial Food Stamp Reform
Emily Moore of The Heritage Foundation discusses the failure of legislation that would have reformed food stamp eligibility and work standards. “Restoring TANF’s work requirements and changing the current food stamps program to include solid work requirements for able-bodied recipients would do much to help those in need achieve dependence and solidify self-reliance as a cornerstone of American society.” 

Food Stamp Reforms Will Help Both the Recipient and the Treasury
Republican members of the Senate Committee on the Budget outline what they argue are the problems facing SNAP and propose several amendments to address those issues. 

Food Stamp Fiasco
This Wall Street Journal Review and Outlook article comments on the growing problems with the food stamp program and notes legislators have failed to implement reforms to improve the program. “When the food stamp program began in the 1970s, it was designed to help about 1 of 50 Americans who were in severe financial distress. But thanks to eligibility changes first by President George W. Bush as part of the 2002 farm bill and then by President Obama in the 2008 stimulus, food stamps are becoming the latest middle-class entitlement,” the article notes. 

Issue: Food Stamp Reform
The Carleson Center for Public Policy recommends block-granting food stamps, an idea first proposed by former President Ronald Reagan. The document states, “President-elect Reagan, as part of the transition process from the Carter administration, approved the following recommendation regarding the federal Food Stamp program for the poor: ‘That a comprehensive nutritional block grant program be proposed to replace the 13 individual categorical USDA programs. That the program be administered by the states under broad federal guidelines with limited planning and reporting requirements.'” 

Food-Stamp Folly
Writing in National Review, Nash Keune of the Franklin Center documents the rapid expansion of the food stamp program. Keune argues current reform proposals do not go far enough to combat the growing costs. “In short,” he writes, “SNAP is a supposedly countercyclical program that saw its enrollment increase by 25 percent as unemployment dropped. Per-capita spending on the program doubled between 2007 and 2010. The House’s small funding cut and reforms such as Senator Sessions’s (there are about 200 other amendments to the Farm Bill on the table) are just small steps toward reining in a fundamentally flawed program.” 

The Great Bush-Obama Food Stamp Expansion
Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center discusses the rapid expansion of the food stamp program under the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. de Rugy criticizes those expansions and the bonuses states receive for boosting SNAP enrollment. 

Obama vs. Reagan: Food Stamp Failure
This Americans for Tax Reform article examines the history of the food stamp program and criticizes recent changes to the program under the Obama administration, comparing them unfavorably with the Reagan administration’s efforts to downsize the program. 

Reforming Food Stamps to Promote Work and Reduce Poverty and Dependence
Robert Rector of The Heritage Foundation argues in this paper in favor of applying work requirement standards similar to TANF to the food stamps program. “The replacement of AFDC with the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program (TANF) has led to record declines in dependence and poverty. Since the creation of TANF, we have learned that welfare programs with work requirements will reduce poverty more effectively than similar programs without work requirements. It is time to apply the lessons from AFDC reform to Food Stamps.” 

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program: Categorical Eligibility
Gene Falk and Randy Alison Aussenberg of the Congressional Research Service discuss categorical eligibility and some of the problems it causes. They describe the three different types of categorical eligibility: traditional categorical eligibility conveyed through receipt of need-based cash assistance, and the newer “narrow” and “broad-based” categorical eligibilities conveyed via TANF “noncash” benefits. They also provide information on current state practices with regard to categorical eligibility and discuss proposals to restrict TANF-based categorical eligibility.

Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit The Heartlander’s Budget and Tax News Web site at, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Heartland Institute Senior Policy Analyst Matthew Glans at 312/377-4000 or [email protected].