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Rick Santorum, the Food Stamp Senator

Morgen on February 21, 2012 at 4:08 pm

Throughout the primary campaign Rick Santorum has regularly criticized President Obama, pointing at the rapid rise in the number of Americans receiving food stamps under his administration (a 44 percent increase since January 2009). He’s promised to cut the food stamps program significantly should he be elected president, questioning how a nation struggling with obesity can justify doling out a benefit meant to alleviate hunger to nearly one-sixth of it’s population. While Santorum’s position is in line with the other candidates in the GOP field, there may be no one left in the race, including the President himself, who is more directly responsible for the growth in the food stamps program than Rick Santorum.

The last realistic opportunity to rein in federal spending on food stamps came with the Bush Administration’s 2005 budget proposal, when Republicans still held the majority in both houses of Congress . The administration proposed to close out a loophole in the criteria used for food stamp eligibility, a change which would have resulted in $574 million in program cuts over 5 years. An outcry ensued of course from all the the usual sources, accusing Republicans of attempting to “slash” food aid for the poor. In truth, this change would have resulted in a reduction in spending of only three tenths of one percent (.3%) without actually cutting the program at all.

It would, however, have set an important precedent, but the proposal never came up for a vote on the Senate floor. Proudly leading the charge to kill the measure was none other than Senator Rick Santorum, who served on the Agricultural Committee which decided it’s fate. As evidence of this, his office issued a press release touting that Santorum had played a “major role” in defeating the proposal, lauding Santorum for “shielding nutrition programs from funding cuts” for “needy Americans”.

A year later in a promotional flyer (pdf) for his re-election campaign Santorum bragged that he “led the Senate” in protecting the Food Stamp program from the cuts proposed by the White House.

So what exactly was this loophole which the Bush Administration sought to close and which Santorum was so determined to save? The Bush budget proposal from 2005 describes it pretty well (emphasis added):

Historically, households which were determined eligible for comparable means-tested benefits were deemed “categorically,” or automatically, eligible for food stamps. When the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program was established, categorical food stamp eligibility was extended to households receiving TANF cash assistance as well as those only receiving TANF-funded services. However, in practice, TANF-funded services are extremely diverse, and do not necessarily have eligibility criteria that are comparable to the Food Stamp program. In some cases, States have expanded categorical eligibility for food stamps to those who have received a pamphlet published with TANF funds. As a result, in some States, households with income and resources well above the regular eligibility criteria are able to receive food stamps.

The Budget proposes to limit Food Stamp categorical eligibility to households receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) cash benefits. Households receiving TANF-funded services, but not cash, would no longer be automatically eligible for food stamps, but could apply under regular program rules. This proposal conforms the program’s rules to their historical intent, ensuring that Federal assistance is targeted to individuals who are most in need.

In short, the loophole allowed states to confer automatic eligibility for food stamps by simply handing out an informational pamphlet to potential beneficiaries, and in the process bypassing the means testing required under normal program rules. Rules which were intended to limit the granting of food stamps only to individuals and families with income at or below the poverty level, and with very little in the way of other financial assets. Using this loophole, state-level administrators of the food stamps program could legally grant eligibility to individuals with tens of thousands of dollars in assets or more, lottery winners even.

Notably, the Bush administration was not attempting to eliminate the granting of automatic eligibility in its entirety, but rather only to restrict this status to beneficiaries who were already receiving some other form of cash welfare benefit, where some minimum level of means testing had already been performed. The effort by some state administrators to bypass statutory means testing by simply handing out a piece of paper seems like just the type of regulatory loophole that Congress would have an interest in closing. In the name of fairness, if not fiscal restraint.

But not Rick Santorum, apparently.

In the year following Santorum’s effort to lead the defeat of this proposal in the Senate, 18.7 percent of the households receiving food stamps were deemed automatically eligible under this loophole, which equated to about 2.1 million households (source). By 2010 this figure had grown to a whopping 51.3 percent of all households receiving food stamp benefits, or just over 9.4 million households (source). That’s nearly a 350% increase in only 5 years, and probably accounts for most of the increase in the total number of people receiving food stamp benefits outside of the effects of the economic downturn.

Thanks to Rick Santorum’s “leadership”.

Now that’s not to say that many of these individuals and families would not otherwise be eligible for food stamps. I’m sure many of them would, perhaps even a majority. But with over 50 percent of food stamp recipients now exempt from basic means testing, it’s a safe bet that there is a significant amount of over-spending taking place. Consider that if the 5-year savings number was $574 million in 2006, then 350% of this total (reflecting the increase in the number of recipients deemed automatically eligible since then) would be just over $2 billion. The actual number is probably much higher given that spending per recipient has also increased significantly in recent years.

Rick Santorum promises to cut food stamps spending if he is elected, but he had a prime opportunity to rein in the program when he was in the Senate. Not only did he vote the wrong way, but by his own admission he played a central role in blocking what would have been a very reasonable change in the way the program is administered. If the accusation of being insensitive to the plight of the poor was enough to convince Santorum to oppose such a reasonable, and ultimately nominal reduction in food stamp spending in 2005 – when the unemployment rate was less than 5% – I’m not sure why we should believe that he would resist this same type of pressure in making the more significant cuts he has promised.

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