Column: Food stamp critics deserve responses
By Lloyd Omdahl, Columnist
North Dakota farmers are in limbo with the farm program trapped in a dispute between the U.S. Senate and the House over cuts in the food stamp budget.
In October, 25,000 North Dakota households involving 54,000 people received $6.8 million. The average benefit was $132 per person and $290 per household.
More than 40 percent of the recipients are holding down minimum wage jobs that make them eligible for food assistance. Some are disabled folks; 44 percent are children; the rest are unemployed.
But the program seems to have spun out of control. Nationally, the food stamp program has doubled from $27 billion in 2008 to $65 billion at present. While the cost is predicted to decline as employment recovers, the price is high at a time when we are struggling to balance the federal budget.
With the escalating costs, it should be no surprise that the program is subject to skepticism and it will become a chronic bone of contention unless the criticisms are confronted.
The U.S. House wants some assurance that the program hasn’t become a haven for freeloaders. Even after discounting those who are already working, the children and the disabled, there are some recipients who could be doing something constructive to earn their keep.
The job market has been improving but not for people with limited skills whose jobs got exported or terminated in the economic downturn. It is unlikely that these jobs will ever come back.
That being said, it doesn’t allay the feeling that the unemployed, able-bodied food stamp recipients ought to be required to provide work for their food. However, implementation of a work program will require a case-by-case analysis of potential for each “freeloader.” That means more funding for job counseling.
No matter the cost, it should be done to address the concerns of taxpayers over loafers on the dole.
Then there is the criticism that food stamp recipients are making bad choices. That is true.
To clear the air, food stamps cannot be used to purchase alcohol, tobacco products, pet food, soaps, paper products, household supplies, vitamins, medicine or other nonfood items. The real problem is on the food choices being made — too much junk food and not enough fruit and vegetables.
Wisconsin and South Carolina legislators are promoting legislation to curb junk food purchasing with food stamps. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture has refused to grant waivers to states to crack down on potato chips, soft drinks and other obesity-generating items.
According to the Harvard School of Public Health, the U.S. is already spending $190 billion yearly on obesity-related diseases. So taxpayer money should not be used to create new medical costs for society.
The problem with curbing poor food choices by fiat is that it would take an army of administrators to enforce it. Massive regulations would be required to define the specifics of good and bad purchases.
However, by using incentives and disincentives, food stamp recipients could be pressured to take advantage of the excellent training available through the North Dakota State Extension Service. The Extension Service has a contract with the Department of Human Services to teach recipients food budgeting, healthy choices and food preparation at local sites.
Last year, the Extension Service worked with 6,000 adult recipients — an impressive number, but still only a fraction of those who need training.
If food stamp advocates expect to maintain public support for the program, then they would be wise to address the concerns of critics by supporting work requirements for the unemployed able-bodied and more effective use of the food stamp dollars.
(Lloyd Omdahl, of Grand Forks, is a former lieutenant governor, state tax commissioner and state budget director)