Food Stamp Recruitment Is Not an Economic Development Strategy

and Shirley Iverson

A record number of people in Oregon entered the food assistance program during 2008. It is tempting to attribute this to poor economic conditions, but that would be wrong. Over the past decade, Oregon consistently has had some of the highest participation rates for federal food aid of any state in the nation, even in years when the economy was booming. The reason is that state agencies and self-styled “anti-hunger” advocates have aggressively recruited people into the food assistance program. Advocates view federal aid as “free money,” and believe that even more people should sign up as a way of bringing tax dollars into the local economy.

This approach callously promotes a lifestyle of government dependence among those most in need of self-reliance skills, while destroying wealth in the national economy. It’s time for a new strategy.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as Food Stamps, is administered at the national level by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and in Oregon by the Department of Human Services (DHS). The program began experimentally in 1939 as a four-year pilot project to help dispose of surplus crops, but the permanent program we know today was inaugurated by Congress in 1964. The program is targeted to low-income and single-parent households, and benefits are distributed via electronic debit cards (known locally as the Oregon Trail card).

The SNAP program is intended to supplement the food budgets of low-income families. It is important to note “supplement,” not “replace,” the family food budget. SNAP benefits are paid for 100% by federal tax dollars, even though DHS actually runs the program and delivers the benefits.

During the 1990s, Oregon began an aggressive Food Stamp recruitment program. As a result, by 2001 Oregon had the third-highest participation rate (or take-up rate) of any state in the nation, and vaulted into the top spot the next year. Since 2001 Oregon has never dropped out of the top five in national participation rates.

This is in contrast to all other western states. In 2006 California had the lowest take-up rate in the nation, at 50%. Washington, Idaho, Montana, Nevada and Wyoming were all in the bottom 15 among states. Meanwhile, the national participation rate was 67%, and Oregon was tied for fifth at 85%.

SNAP advocates are proud of this trend. They claim that every $5 in federal food aid money generates $9.20 in “total community spending.” The website of the Oregon Hunger Relief Task Force states, “Increased participation means that Oregon now brings in more than $450 million in federal food stamp dollars annually. If all eligible households participated, Oregon could bring in almost $100 million more each year.”

The message from advocates is clear: It is the patriotic duty of every low-income family to sign up for those free federal dollars, no matter how humiliating it is to actually use them.

The federal government has been fully complicit in this dysfunctional recruitment. The USDA has a public “goal” of increasing the national take-up rate to 68% by 2010, and has awarded activist states like Oregon special grants as rewards for their outreach. In 2007 the Oregon DHS received a “bonus” of $1.7 million, which was used to finance additional outreach and recruitment, along with nutritional education. In September 2008 USDA gave out $1.5 million to Oregon.
The federal government also gave $1 million to 14 faith-based and community organizations in September to improve access to, and awareness of, the Food Stamp program. Catholic Charities of Portland was one of the 14.
Taxpayer-financed advocacy leads to high take-up rates, which results in even more tax subsidies to Oregon through increased monthly SNAP benefits — sort of a perpetual motion machine powered by federal dollars. The trend itself has almost nothing to do with actual levels of hunger; it’s all about marketing.

The sad part is that SNAP is not designed to encourage self-sufficiency or saving. In fact, prudent household shopping is explicitly discouraged. If SNAP recipients are thrifty and spend less per month than they are allocated, their benefits eventually will be cut back. Therefore, the bureaucratic message is to “spend it all now,” exactly the opposite of what we usually encourage people to do when they are on limited income.

We need much more creativity in addressing food insecurity, if in fact politicians actually care about it. Instead of just giving a hand-out, we should give a “hand up” by addressing root causes of hunger. For instance, according to the Oregon Food Bank, only 36% of their clients have post-high school education, compared with 59% of the general population. Clearly a good education is critical, yet Oregon refuses to offer a money-back guarantee to students trapped in low-performing public schools.

Ironically, while anti-hunger advocates are thrilled to see taxpayers spend $450 million per year in food vouchers, they oppose one penny being spent on educational vouchers, even though education is a real solution and SNAP is just a band-aid.

We also could help the 29% of Oregon Food Bank clients who are actively looking for work but do not have a car. Research shows that car ownership increases the likelihood of steady employment, yet Oregon policymakers insist on squandering hundreds of millions of tax dollars annually on high-cost rail transit that is irrelevant to most job-seekers. Diverting just a small fraction of transit money (one percent or less) into a low-income car loan program would be a cost-effective way of reducing food insecurity.

Being “Number 1 for Food Stamps” is nothing to be proud of. Our goal should be to join California at the bottom of the heap, by actually helping people to become self-reliant.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute. Shirley Iverson is a consultant for Cascade’s Government Transparency Project. From 1988 to 2005, Ms. Iverson held several high-level leadership positions within the Oregon Department of Human Services.

  • Boxed Lunch

    The lunch program started with good intentions and has grown into hungry monster.
    When our daughter was in middle school one of the handouts sent home to all the students was for this program. We were told to sign up for the program if at all possible because the school would get additional funds for classroom projects. We didn’t sign up but there was pressure from the school for us to do it.
    The entitlement attitude does not reflect well on the character of Oregonians. We need leaders who set a policy that will advocate for self reliance and prudent spending.

  • Zero

    People using food stamps is a sign that people need it, and they also spend 100% of it in their local grocery. Find anotehr government agency to pick on.

  • Rupert in Springfield

    >Being “Number 1 for Food Stamps” is nothing to be proud of.

    Well that’s the entire problem right there isn’t it? No shame.

    The fact of the matter is that there has been a concerted effort to strip any shame, at all levels, from participation in these programs. To my mind this effort started in the early 1970’s with the switching from the term “recipients” to “clients”. It has progressed along with such things as the Oregon Trail card, in part to save any shame in having to yank out a fist full of obvious food stamps.

    Largess, either public or private, should be a temporary thing for the non permanently incapacitated. Government agencies obviously have a different inclination, they will always seek to expand their sphere. Rightly or wrongly there is little counterforce to this other than public and private shame of the recipient.

    The corrosive effects of this sort of thing are hard to underestimate. Sure entitlements are popular, handing out candy often is. That does not make unlimited expansion of them beneficial to the long term good.

    >Ironically, while anti-hunger advocates are thrilled to see taxpayers spend $450 million per year in food vouchers, they oppose one penny being spent

    Oh Good lord – Anti Hunger Advocate?

    If these people could take a little break from buffing their halo, Id like to know what the rest of us are? Pro – Hunger?

    These people are food stamp advocates, who simply are trying to obscure their support of continuity and expansion of a program through self beatification.

  • anonymous 2

    Welfare and food stamps should be time limited. So should poverty.

  • Jerry

    All peoples of the world need food. Many of us are underweight, too. We must eat. We must eat for free. We must eat often.
    This is a good program.
    Thank God we have a government that cares for us. Otherwise, what would we do? Plant stuff and hope it grew?

  • John Fairplay

    “People using food stamps is a sign that people need it”

    Hm. It’s certainly a sign that they qualify, but it doesn’t prove they “need” it.

    The measure of success of this program is how many people no longer need it. So far, it’s an almost total failure.

    • Joanne Rigutto

      Hmmm, “The measure of success of this program is how many people no longer need it.”

      I would say that fewer people needing the program would be a sign that the economy is picking up, converseley, more people needing the program would be a sign that the economy was going down hill.

      Note – I said that more people needing the program was a sign that the economy was going down hill, not that more people qualified for the program. Qualifications are always dependant on who sets the bar, not on the condition of the economy….

  • sybella

    There is too much reliance on government handouts. I know some don’t think antidotes are worth anything. I disagree.

    A few years ago, we were having it really tough. This was during the 73 recessision as many of you are familiar with. We were broke and unemployed. Also did have a garden, ten chickens and some weiner pigs. We raised potatoes that summer which froze in the ground before harvest. We lived on rice, macaroni, eggs until the chickens quit laying. When we got tired of that we went to macaroni and rice. Our altime favorite and treat was fried crackers. We did not go for assistance, Sorry but our pride just got in the way. Our pride was justified, nobody died, nobody starved, the kids got tired of the same diet all the time, but so what?

    I told that story because I know from first hand experience, most people can really provide for themselves. The key word for doing so is ‘want to’. People have become very lazy and demanding. It’s sad.

    There does need to be limits to the time they can use this assistance and definitely dropped from the programs if they do nothing to help themselves.

  • oblio

    I’m not surprised at the lack of compassion or common sense displayed here. First of all, food stamps ARE a temporary way for families to feed themselves. If you think everyone should just get over it and stop being lazy, you have no idea of the real challenges actual working people can face. Next, an anti-hunger advocate is someone that promotes programs that seek to help those suffering from hunger, so yeah Rupert in Springfield, if you dont like the food stamp program, and dont agree with people who promote their use, then yes, you are pro-hunger, cause food stamps is a good program that works and still you morons try and find fault with it. The fact that most of you think there SHOULD be shame associated with government assistance is all the evidence I need that you will never ever get your brains out of your rear ends cause you simply will never believe otherwise. When your ideology trumps rationality you make decision that are not based in reality. Hmmm…sounds like our last president. Boy am I NOT sorry that loser is gone. You wanna talk about shame? That guy should be ashamed of himself…like most of you.

    • Sybella

      It isn’t a lack of common sense, it isn’t a lack of compassion on our part. It is, a lack of common sense on the part of those using food stamps and welfare.

      I know there are people who really need the help and I’m glad it’s there for them.

      I have a problem though with the people who come in my store spending their money on pop, candy, chips, beer and tobacco. Daily, not occassionally. They also have their skate boards, cell phones, stereos. They have never, never, never, never ask me for a job, even when it was obvious we were shorthanded. If they are healthy enough to ride a bike, run, drink, smoke, drugs,(very prevalent) and yet they will let you feed them. Sorry, I do not feel sorry for them. On the other hand, if I saw them and I do see some of them really trying, I will help every way I can. I will not,willingly, help somebody to become dependent on the government for their subsistence.

    • Rupert in Springfield

      >When your ideology trumps rationality you make decision that are not based in reality

      >so yeah Rupert in Springfield, if you dont like the food stamp program, and dont agree with people who promote their use, then yes, you are pro-hunger

      Um… sorry, hard not to laugh at this one. Please, do go on!

      I had no idea that unless I agree with “hunger advocates” then that means I support hunger. Curious you seem to think your position rational and mine ideological.

      Long story short – compassion is something earned, not demanded. You want compassion? Stop giving the working guy BS as some sort of excuse. As much as you may like to whip out the Springsteen playlist on your IPod and think about how you are entitled to demand everyone give you something, don’t expect compassion as a reward for your “keepin it real” blue collar indignation. I find it dull, boring and not convincing in the least.

  • Bad Boy Jones

    Its’ really unfortunate that so many of the people I see using the Oregon Trail Card at Winco are not only buying packaged junk foods; but are all too often GROSSLY OBESE. There needs to be a change in this program focusing on nutrition and limiting food purchases to items that have some nutrional value.
    It might also be pointed out that Oregon has tradionally had a large percentage of Food Stamp Program recipients, even when the economy was doing well. This speaks volumes about Oregon’s “great” economy.

    • Shirley

      The suggestions of freedom of school choice and asset building car ownership discussed in the commentary take away the hand out of food benefits and begin the conversation of what *DIFFERENT* measures could support Oregon’s poor. Other ideas could include asset building with the benefit dollars for stable housing, education of children on the caseload, employment supports, tax credits, etc. The program is broken, the influx of million each month has not helped any recipient out of povery nor has it lowered the hunger survey results.