Barack Obama took office in 2009 amidst the worst recession since the early 1980s. He had more faith in government spending than any White House occupant since Franklin Roosevelt. He speedily pushed through a stimulus bill through Congress that helped increase the number of food-stamp recipients from 31 million to almost 48 million, making government handouts a central part of far more Americans’ lives. Unlike what had happened in the aftermath of previous recessions, food-stamp enrollment continued rising long after unemployment began declining.
The Obama administration saw increasing the number of people being fed by the government as a transcendent benefit, so it bankrolled state and local food-stamp recruiting drives. In Alabama, people received fliers proclaiming, “Be a patriot. Bring your food-stamp money home.” The state of Florida is paying individual recruiters to sign up at least 150 new food-stamp recipients per month. The Department of Agriculture (USDA) urges state and local governments to conduct food-stamp parties (with “food and entertainment”) and bingo games to whip up enthusiasm for enlisting. The USDA promoted a 10-part Spanish-language radio “novella” to encourage immigrants to go on the dole. A North Carolina social-services agency won a USDA “Hunger Champions Award” for its ad campaign attacking “mountain pride” as a reason for not accepting government handouts. The USDA is hectoring states to increase their “participation rates,” putting out press releases praising states that have a high percentage of eligible people on food stamps and deriding laggard states.
Federally funded recruiting campaigns helped make food stamps more fashionable and inviting. A Salon article entitled “Hipsters on Food Stamps” noted that fancy food markets that specialize in “artisanal bread, heirloom tomatoes, and grass-fed beef” are seeing far more food-stamp customers. One blogger, who relished buying Perrier water with food stamps, snarked, “The fancier the food, the more glee there is in knowing the government has once again helped in enabling a lavish lifestyle.”
The Food Stamp Poster Boy of 2013 was Jason Greenslate, a 29-year-old Californian surfer who achieved brief notoriety after he told Fox News that he avoids remunerative work and uses his monthly food-stamp allotment to “purchase as much sushi and gourmet lobster as $200 can buy. Then it’s off to the beach.” Greenslate touted his gourmet purchases “all paid for by our wonderful tax dollars. It’s free food. It’s awesome.” Greenslate later complained to the Huffington Post about how Fox portrayed him: “I don’t feel like a bum. I pull hot chicks, drive nice cars, dress nice, and wear the most baddest jewelry in the world.”
The Obama administration pressured state governments to give food stamps even to people who are far wealthier than average Americans. Millionaires are now legally entitled to collect food stamps as long as they have little or no monthly income. Thirty-five states abolished asset tests for most food-stamp recipients.
After 59-year-old Leroy Fick won a $2 million lottery jackpot, the Michigan Department of Human Services ruled that he could continue receiving food stamps. The Detroit News explained: “If Fick had chosen to accept monthly payments of his jackpot, the winnings would be considered income, according to the DHS. But by choosing to accept a lump sum payment, the winnings were considered ‘assets’ and aren’t counted in determining food stamp eligibility.”
Ironically, decades after liberals derided Ronald Reagan’s references to “welfare queens in Cadillacs,” Oba-ma administration policies could permit trust-fund babies driving Rolls Royces to get free food courtesy of Uncle Sam.
Food-stamp enrollment also soared thanks to new rules that automatically entitled vast numbers of otherwise ineligible people to benefits. A top USDA food-stamp official urged state governments in September 2009 to “adopt broad-based categorical eligibility” to “promote savings among low-income households and simplify state policies.” Turning more people into government dependents was the surest way to “promote savings” — at least according to Obama logic. Categorical eligibility allows states to waive the asset and income limits on food-stamp recipients, permitting households with incomes twice the poverty level to snare benefits from a program purported to be designed for the poor.
People can automatically qualify for food stamps if they receive one from a long list of other government handouts or services. Bloomberg News detailed one such bureaucratic charade: “If a state gives a resident as little as $1 a year in heating assistance, it allows that person’s household to automatically qualify for an average of $1,080 in additional food stamps annually from the federal government.” This “heat and eat” enrollment ploy is used by 14 states and the District of Columbia, where 22 percent of the residents are on food stamps. This and similar machinations add almost 2 million households to the food-stamp rolls. In many states, simply receiving a brochure describing government benefits is sufficient to automatically qualify some people for food stamps. A Heritage Foundation report noted that “half of all food stamp recipients now enroll in the program through this [categorical eligibility] procedure.”
The Obama administration made it far easier to collect food stamps than to go to job interviews. Most states now permit people to apply for food stamps online, and many states also invite applications by means of phone calls. Because such applications involve no signature, they can make it more difficult to prosecute fraudulent claims.
Food-stamp enrollment also surged because the Obama administration suspended the three-month limit for able-bodied adults without dependents to collect food stamps. Canceling the work requirement made the program much more attractive to 20-somethings. The GAO reported in 2012, “Local caseworkers across several states described an increasing trend of single people aged 22 applying as their own SNAP households.”
From its first months in office, the Obama administration portrayed food stamps as an engine of prosperity. The White House website proclaimed, “Every $5 in new SNAP benefits generates as much as $9 of economic activity for more than 230,000 participating supermarkets, grocers, and farmers’ markets.” USDA officials perennially make a similar claim: “Every $5 in SNAP generates $9.20 for the local economy.”
But there is no evidence that a dollar of food stamps spurs more economic activity than a dollar someone earns on the job. If the Obama multiplier calculus was correct, the administration could give food stamps to all Americans and guarantee boom times and full employment in perpetuity. The multiplier was not intended to explain economic reality but to provide a cover for maximizing government handouts.
In reality, food stamps drain the economy by swaying able-bodied adults to work less, while others are forced to support them. Food-stamp benefits are reduced by 30 cents for each dollar recipients earn past a certain point. A Journal of Public Economics analysis concluded that receiving food stamps results in a nearly “50 percent reduction in total hours worked” by women. University of Chicago economist Casey Mulligan concluded that the food-stamp work-disincentive actually helped to prolong the recession and enfeebled the eventual recovery.
After Obama took office, food-stamp anti-fraud efforts effectively collapsed. Lax bureaucratic attitudes spurred swindles across the nation:
- Troy Hutson, the chief of Washington state’s food-stamp program, resigned in 2011 after an uproar over his comments about a television exposé on pervasive abuses by food-stamp recipients. Hutson justified the state government’s lackadaisical response because “they’re poor. Even if you go after them, you’re not going to get the money back.” Washington State Sen. Mike Carrell complained, “Dozens of workers at DSHS [the Department of Social and Health Services] have reported numerous unpunished cases of fraud to me. They have told me that DSHS management has allowed these things to happen, and in some cases actively restricted fraud investigations.”
- Thirty percent of the inmates in the Polk County, Iowa, jail were collecting food stamps in 2009. But Iowa could not prosecute them for fraud because the state’s food-stamp form failed to ask applicants if they were heading for the slammer. Roger Munns, a spokesman for the Iowa Department of Human Services, told the Des Moines Register that asking such questions could make food-stamp applications “unwieldy.”
- The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel revealed in 2010 that Wisconsin food-stamp recipients routinely sell their benefit cards on Facebook. An investigation discovered that “nearly 2,000 [food-stamp] recipients claimed they lost their card six or more times in 2010 and requested replacements.”
- New Mexico Human Services Secretary Sidonie Squier complained in 2013 that the biggest fraud issue in her state was receipients’ selling their food-stamp Electronic Benefit (EBT) Card and claiming that it was lost or stolen. Roughly 70 percent of all the EBT cards issued in New Mexico in 2012 were replacement cards. Squier told Albuquerque’s KOB-TV, “We know that there are some people who lose them four, six, or eight times, and it’s pretty suspicious, but you can’t do anything about it based on the federal rules. They want people to have the cards — they want the card replaced.”
Looser federal rules are also spurring a bureaucratic crime wave. Two veteran employees for New York City’s Human Resources Administration were busted in 2010 for concocting 1500 fake food- stamp cases that netted them $8 million. Nine Milwaukee, Wisconsin, staffers plundered almost $300,000 from the program, and a Louisiana state bureaucrat pled guilty in 2010 for her role in a scam that snared more than $50,000 in fraudulent food-stamp benefits.
The Obama administration recognized potential political windfalls from food stamps. In 2010, the Justice Department began hammering state governments to allow people to register to vote at the same time they applied for food stamps. A New York Times editorial declared, “The best reason to applaud the Justice Department’s new posture is that it will bring more voters into public life…. The more people who have access to the ballot, the better the country will be.”
The more people who become government dependents, the more likely that democracy will become a conspiracy against self-reliance. When Obama left office, 43 million people were receiving food stamps — more than twice as many as relied on them in 2002. The vast increase in the number of government dependents has made it more profitable for politicians to bribe their way to reelection. Democratic candidates routinely receive far more votes in urban areas with concentrations of food-stamp recipients.
Handouts provide cheap halos for politicians. The more handouts politicians give, the more benevolent they appear — regardless of the burdens that taxpayers suffer. The old saying, “don’t bite the hand that feeds you,” takes on new meaning when the feds are feeding more than 100 million Americans. The more people who depend on government for their next meal, the easier it becomes for politicians to seize everyone else’s paychecks.
This article was originally published in the February 2017 issue of FFF’s monthly journal, Future of Freedom.