On Wednesday, December 5th, the USDA released a weirdly vague press release about the food stamp program. A quote:
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is promising increased cooperation with states in the operation of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to promote self-sufficiency, integrity in the program, and better customer service. To make these improvements, USDA intends to offer state agencies greater local control over SNAP, the safety net program that serves millions of eligible, low-income individuals and families. Specifics on such flexibilities will be communicated to state agencies in the coming weeks.
The entire release is couched in language of “innovation” and “self-sufficiency” and “independence” and “integrity,” but it does not offer much information at all about what might change for the food stamp program, which is used by over 45 million Americans. However, paired with other recent releases, we can get a sense of what Sonny Perdue’s USDA is saying.
The governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, drafted a measure this week that would impose certain restrictions on his state’s food stamp program – namely, drug testing. Other states have attempted this before, most notably Florida in 2014, but drug testing as a prerequisite for food stamp enrollment has generally been blocked by the courts as an illegal search.
The USDA’s stance – essentially allowing states to do what they want with food stamps – suggests that Walker’s measure may go unchallenged. The Trump administration has been vocally opposed to welfare programs like food stamps, having proposed a whopping $190 billion cut over the next ten years to the program.
After Florida’s foray into drug testing in the food stamp program, we have some data as to this idea’s effectiveness. In Florida, two percent of food stamp applicants tested positive for drugs; overall drug use rates in Florida are over eight percent. Those on food stamps were far less likely to be drug users than those not on food stamps. And the cost of administering drug tests was found to cost more than the savings gained by barring those who tested positive for drug use. Which sort of begs the question: why are we bothering to drug test people in this program at all?
Republicans have long harped on the supposed laziness and fraud of the food stamp program. In fact the program loses less than 1 percent in fraud, making it one of the most efficient entitlement programs in the entire government. More than half of those on food stamps are either children, elderly, or disabled, and the majority of able-bodied adults do, despite the inaccurate claims of lawmakers, work.
The only conceivable angle to instituting drug testing is to dehumanize and shame the poorest and neediest members of our society. The data does not suggest that there are large numbers of smirking, lazy, non-working leeches on the program; instead what it shows is that this is an efficient and effective means to feed those who have fallen on hard times. (It also shows that food stamps are objectively good for the economy!)