Steve Southerland's Farm Bill amendment might have erred on the side of a 19th century Dickensian workhouse, but give the Panama City Republican credit: SNAP, America's food stamp program, is eating the national budget alive, reforms are desperately needed -- and Southerland called it.
He didn't win the battle Thursday when House votes were counted, but he certainly showed us the target.
A record 47 million Americans now rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps, available for people with annual incomes below about $15,000. Understandable during the deepest days of the recession, when 10 million more Americans fell into poverty. But four years into the recovery, the program has continued to expand.
Why? Because state governments and their partner organizations -- Florida included, I must tell you -- have become active promoters, creating official SNAP outreach plans. They've actually hired hundreds of recruiters to seek out sign-ups for free food.
Here, as in other states, recruiters have quotas. Most of them are required to sign up between 100 and 200 people a month. Ostensibly, the goal is to curb hunger and reduce the worst effects of poverty. But cash-strapped Florida has a more controversial reason for jumping on the program's bandwagon: Increasing food-stamp enrollment is now a means of economic growth. It imports from the federal government almost $6 billion a year.
So many get a cut. The money sustains Florida communities, grocery stores and food producers. But it also adds to rising federal entitlement spending, the size of government generally and the U.S. debt.
The amendment Southerland successfully tacked onto the House Farm Bill on Thursday would have allowed states to require most adults who receive or apply for SNAP -- including parents with children as young as 1 year old and many people with disabilities -- to work or participate in a work or training program for at least 20 hours a week, or else have their entire familys SNAP benefits cut off.
Draconian, yes. But House members spent the week thrashing it out on center stage. And while it might have served in part to doom the $940 billion Farm Bill -- SNAP is funded through the Farm Bill -- the Providing Relief to Individuals Desiring Employment (PRIDE) Act, as the amendment was called,exposed about as glaring an example of Big, Fat Government as we've got next to Obamacare.
As Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said during the House floor debate on Southerland's amendment: "When we see the expansion of the dependency class in America, and you add this to the 79 other means-tested welfare programs that we have in the United States each time you add another brick to that wall, it's a barrier to people that might go out and succeed."
Which is exactly what Gov. Rick Scott said in a letter of support for Southerland's amendment. It was addressed to House Speaker John Boehner.
"Since 2000, SNAP has grown from $20 billion to $85 billion nationally and has become the second most costly federal means-tested assistance program," the governor wrote late Wednesday. "According to the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, half of SNAP heads of households in 2011 had stopped looking for work.
"U.S. Representative Southerlands proposal recognizes the need to reform long-running government-assistance programs to ensure their availability for future generations while allowing states to modernize and tailor their administration of these federal programs."
Scott wants rules that encourage working-age SNAP recipients -- in fact, recipients of all 79 means-tested welfare programs -- to stay on the job search, to do what it takes to feed themselves and their families without government assistance. SNAP is a doable program, he says, if states are given the flexibility to manage food stamp benefits.
The governor had to be pleased with Boehner, who cast his vote in favor of the bill, amendment and all. Nevertheless, the bill failed largely because Democrats who promised to support it backed off when Southerland's PRIDE Act was tacked on.
After the vote, Dems admitted they could not produce the 40 promised votes because of pressure from their party leaders and the White House, which had threatened to veto the bill over the food stamp cuts.
SNAP is a lifeline especially to millions of elderly and work-disabled Americans, and so it should be. But surely a program that quadrupled in the billions within a decade and a half should raise more red flags among fiscal realists than aPyongyang military parade.
Fixing this program should be a bipartisan bandwagon. OK, it may not need a gouge, it may need a scalpel. But Southerland and all the kerfuffle his amendment created did Congress a favor. I guarantee you that members who didn't know the good, the bad and mostly the ugly of SNAP certainly do now.
Reach Nancy Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 228-282-2423.