American conservatives hate welfare. But under President Bush, they willingly expanded food stamps — a program that hands out over than 64 billion of dollars worth of assistance a year to low-income Americans and legal immigrants.
The reason? Many conservatives don’t think the food stamps program is welfare.
In 1992 Bill Clinton ran for office promising to "end welfare as we know it". And by the end of his presidency, he boasted that the 1996 welfare reform legislation had cut caseloads in half and moved millions of parents from welfare to work.
This is the part of America’s welfare reform story that everyone knows — the introduction of time limits, the tougher work requirements and the drastic decline in caseloads. The 1996 welfare reforms ended the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program and replaced with with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
… but not food stamps
But there’s more to the American welfare state than cash payments to jobless single mothers. A part of the story most people don’t know is the growth of the food stamp program. Initially caught up in the Clinton administration’s attack on welfare, the program grew rapidly under George W Bush when eligibility conditions were relaxed and policy makers made benefits easier and less stigmatising to claim.
Now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), this program helps low-income Americans and legal immigrants to buy food. Recipients get an electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card that they can use to buy food at supermarkets and other stores. The cards cannot be used to buy things like cigarettes, alcohol, hot food, shampoo or pet food.
In a recent piece for Slate, Annie Lowrey writes:
President George W. Bush appointed Eric Bost as his undersecretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services at the USDA, and the two went on a quiet crusade to expand eligibility, increase enrollment, and reduce stigma around nutrition aid. In 2002, for instance, Bush announced his support for letting legal immigrants apply for benefits, and he pushed the provision into the farm bill—granting about 300,000 more people eligibility at a multibillion-dollar federal cost. Bost also expanded the size of and outreach for SNAP, "reflecting the administration’s commitment to the nutrition safety net"—no mention of welfare there. In negotiations around the 2008 farm bill, the Bush administration took a final, fateful step to reduce stigma and pull the program into the 21st century. The USDA officially rebranded food stamps as SNAP benefits, with a focus on nutrition rather than free food.
The cocktail of rising unemployment, stagnant wages, eased access to support programs, and purposeful destigmatization during the Bush administration meant that rolls swelled—from 17 million when he took office to 28 million when he left. That caused some consternation among conservatives. But the administration pushed back. "I don’t have any problems with those programs growing, and indeed, they were intended to grow," Ron Haskins, a Bush adviser, told the Associated Press in 2007.
Because it’s not welfare
"I assure you," said Bush’s food stamp administrator Eric Bost, "food stamps is not welfare". And many conservative state governors seemed to agree.
Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson is famous for overseeing some of the toughest welfare reforms in the country. But at the same time as his administration was pushing welfare recipients into work, it was bragging about how many families it had signed up for food stamps. Wisconsin’s secretary of workforce development described the program as a supportive service that helped people "climb out of poverty and become self-sufficient".
Of course not all conservatives support food stamps. The Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector complains that "Some people like to camouflage this by calling it a nutrition program, but it’s really not different from cash welfare". But despite pockets of opposition, there’s a remarkable level of support for food stamps among conservative legislators and the public.
In a 2004 paper, the University of Maryland’s David Super explains how food stamps survived the conservative war on welfare. Super argues that public-benefits law fuses expressive and functional elements. Politicians "tend to set policy in order to make symbolic statements about their vision of a moral society" he writes. But rules designed to make symbolic statements often prove inefficient and unworkable. So once the statements are made and attention shifts to other issues, administrators and legislators often have to adjust the rules to make the programs work.
According to Super, most of the players in debates over expressive policies "lack the expertise or interest to develop mechanisms by which those values can be translated into reality or to realize the costs of attempting to do so." Administrators along with the small number of legislators with an ongoing interest in a program tend to be more pragmatic and more focused on efficiency.
Along with advocates for low-income Americans this second, pragmatic group was able to reform food stamps in a way that protected the program from expressive attacks. This meant removing or softening features that signal to the public that it is a ‘welfare’ program.
According to Super:
… a "welfare" program may be distinguished as a program that possesses, or is seen to possess, some combination of the following characteristics: It (1) provides ongoing cash assistance on the basis of need; (2) based on eligibility criteria that take no account of, or penalize, employment; (3) to an unpopular and unemployed population that seems foreign to much of the middle-class; (4) through a public bureaucracy; (5) administered in a manner that seems to encourage fraud and behavior abhorrent to middle-American values.
Food stamps avoid the first marker by offering in-kind assistance rather than cash. Reformers avoided the second and third by including as many low-wage workers as possible. Expanding the program’s reach helped shake off its image as a program that encouraged joblessness and subsidised underclass lifestyles.
Drawing more of the working poor into the food stamp program required an in-depth knowledge of how the program was administered. Part of the difficulty lay in Federal quality control (QC) requirements. According to Super, "the QC system was structured so that close to half the states would be subject to sanctions each year, no matter how they performed." In order to avoid sanctions, state administrators burdened households — particularly working households — with paperwork and reporting requirements. Predictably, this discouraged participation and generated hostility from the states. In addition, state efforts to reduce errors fed into public perceptions that fraud was common. According to Super, the state of Ohio put up signs on buses and movie theatres "suggesting that welfare fraud was widespread with the stated object of prompting more citizen reports."
By dealing with the program’s QC issues, food stamps came to look less like ‘welfare’ and more like a program that supported work.
American public opinion might lean towards conservatism, but it is not hostile to those in poverty. A widely discussed paradox in US public opinion is that many Americans want their government to do more to support the poor, but at the same time want it to cut spending on welfare.
Experience with the food stamp program suggests that reformers can improve support to low-income Americans by recrafting anti-poverty measures to avoid the features that mark programs as ‘welfare’. By doing so they can avoid intractable conflicts with opponents who see the debate as a way of expressing a moral position but who neither know or care about how programs actually work.