The Strange Logic of Food Stamp Reform

House Republicans are considered a bill today to “reform” the food stamp program (called SNAP), which would cut nearly $40 billion from the program by tightening eligibility requirements. According to some reports this would remove roughly 3.8 million people from the program.

It’s a shameful move, and Democrats and many advocates for the poor are trying to shame Republicans for doing this.

The problem is that Republicans aren’t ashamed of this move. They honestly don’t think that they’re hurting the poor, but rather are helping them by freeing them from dependency on government programs. It may sound cracked, but it’s true. In his press release explaining his vote to cut food stamps, Representative Andy Barr said “This legislation is the most compassionate policy because it encourages people who are capable of work to move from dependency to self-sufficiency.”

This is from a Heritage Foundation editorial on welfare reform, but the same logic holds true for any government assistance program:
“Conservatives have as their end goal as few people dependent on the government as possible. In other words, we want people to be self-sufficient, thriving members of society. … Encouraging independence may not be the liberals’ goal, but it is the goal of conservatives. And that is the only goal befitting of human dignity.” Katherine Rosario, Communications Deputy, The Heritage Foundation, op/ed “What Needs to Happen Next with Welfare Reform,” January 23, 2013.

That sounds laudable, but it’s nonsense. If government assistance reduced self-sufficiency and created dependence then countries with welfare programs would have struggling economies, because the people would rather loaf and collect welfare. And conversely, countries without welfare programs would have strong and vibrant economies, because the people would be free of misguided government beneficence, and possibly because the very real threat of poverty and starvation would force people to strive, work hard, and succeed.

But how does that work in the real world? Well, most of the most successful and dynamic economies in the world are in countries with welfare programs. These are the “first-world” countries of Europe, North America, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. Oh, and let’s not forget China, the country with the highest economic growth rate over the last decade or so. China is ostensibly a communist country (though it is more of a capitalistic dictatorship now), with a minimal level of government support for all people. So some level of government assistance doesn’t disincentivize people from working.

And what of the corollary? If welfare creates dependency does lack of support incentivize people to strive? If it does, this doesn’t show up in the economic data. The countries with the most dismal economies are also the countries without any social safety net. So, for some reason, lack of government assistance doesn’t incentivize people to work.

It is a highly complex issue, and there are many factors that determine the relative wealth of a country, and vibrancy of its economy. But there is little support for the conservative idea that government assistance creates dependency.

Author: Mike

I am a patent attorney in Lexington, Kentucky. My law firm web site is I ran for State Representative in 2010 and lost in the primary. Many of these posts are based on writing that I did for that election. Rather than delete it all, I decided to dump it onto the internet.

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