Mitt Romney has taken to lambasting President Obama for record levels of food stamp enrollment, wielding the figures on the safety-net program to attack Obama’s economic policies. “How about food stamps?” Romney said at last night’s debate. “When [Obama] took office, 32 million people were on food stamps. Today, 47 million people are on food stamps.”
Indeed, Romney’s numbers are right. As a result of the recession, the food stamp program, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, added nearly 15 million new people to its rolls since Obama took office.
While Romney’s point is that his economic plan will foster growth and therefore lift all boats—“We don’t have to settle” for that, he said—when it comes to food stamps, Romney has plans for shrinking enrollment that have little to do with economic growth. Mainly, he’d just shrink the food stamp rolls, whether people need the program or not.
Mitt Romney has embraced a plan offered by his running mate Paul Ryan to restructure American safety-net programs into block grants. In effect, the shift would change programs like Medicaid, low-income housing vouchers (a subject noticeably absent from the debate) and food stamps from a guaranteed system of need-based federal support to a devolved operation that hands state lawmakers vast discretion to decide who gets what support.
It’s exactly what happened to welfare in the 90’s. What was once a federal, need-based guarantee of support for poor families became an atrophied, state-run cash assistance system that now covers far fewer poor families despite growing need. After welfare reform in 1996, states were no longer required to provide assistance to poor families and welfare enrollment plummeted. The so-called Temporary Aid for Needy Families program has barely budged during the recession despite rising rates of family poverty.
It’s not likely that a Romney-Ryan administration could push through a full devolution of the safety-net without significant GOP gains in the Senate. Short of making safety-net programs into block grants, Congress is already poised to chop away at the food stamp program. In July, the House passed a version of the Farm Bill that would cut $16.5 billion from the SNAP program. The Senate version would have cut less, but still would likely have left hundreds of thousands less to feed their families.
Romney and Ryan’s plans for the food stamp program would no doubt make it shrink, but in large part by changing the program, not the underlying conditions that make food stamps necessary.
Like welfare cuts, shrinking food stamps would hit people of color and women especially hard because folks of color and single women, are disproportionately poor. Women make up a majority of food stamp recipients, and that’s a demographic Romney expressed concern for because he wants their votes. “There are 3.5 million more women living in poverty today than when the president took office,” he said. But he offered little in the way of solutions.