food stamps

In The Wall Street Journal, James Bovard, a former CEI Warren T. Brookes Journalism Fellow, takes aim at some of the billions in waste contained in President Obama’s recent “jobs” proposal, the “American Jobs Act,” which would fund proven government failures in the form of federal job “training.” Federal “job-training” programs, which Obama likes, are so dismally ineffective that they cause “significant earnings losses” for young people who participate in them, and result in participants ending up on food stamps at higher rates:

Last Thursday, President Obama proposed new federal jobs and job-training programs for youth and the long-term unemployed. The federal government has experimented with these programs for almost a half century. The record is one of failure and scandal.

In 1962, Congress passed the Manpower Development and Training Act (MDTA) . . . A decade after MDTA’s inception, GAO reported that it was failing to teach valuable job skills or place trainees in private jobs and was marred by an “overriding concern with filling available slots for a particular program,” regardless of what trainees actually needed.

Congress responded in 1973 by enacting the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA). . . CETA spent vastly more money. .  .[such as] providing nude sculpture classes (where, as the Pharos-Tribune of Logansport, Ind., explained, “aspiring artists pawed each others bodies to recognize that they had ‘both male and female characteristics’”), and conducting door-to-door food-stamp recruiting campaigns.

Between 1961 and 1980, the feds spent tens of billions on federal job-training and employment programs. To what effect? A 1979 Washington Post investigation concluded, “Incredibly, the government has kept no meaningful statistics on the effectiveness of these programs—making the past 15 years’ effort almost worthless in terms of learning what works.” CETA hirees were often assigned to do whatever benefited the government agency or nonprofit that put them on the payroll, with no concern for the trainees’ development. An Urban Institute study of the mid-1980s concluded that participation in CETA programs resulted in “significant earnings losses for young men of all races and no significant effects for young women.”

After CETA became a laughingstock, Congress replaced it in 1982 with the Job Training Partnership Act. JTPA spent lavishly—to expand an Indiana circus museum, teach Washington taxi drivers to smile, provide foreign junkets for state and local politicians, and bankroll business relocations. . .  young trainees were twice as likely to rely on food stamps after JTPA involvement than before since the “training” often included instructions on applying for an array of government benefits.

For years the Labor Department scorned the mandate in the 1982 legislation to speedily and thoroughly evaluate whether the programs actually benefitted trainees. Finally, in 1993, it released a study that showed participation in JTPA “actually reduced the earnings of male out-of-school youths.” Young males enrolled in JTPA programs had 10% lower earnings than a control group that never participated. . .

In his speech to Congress, Mr. Obama called for funding hundreds of thousands of summer jobs for teens, which he labeled “investing in low-income youth and adults.” Yet such programs have been blighting work ethics for decades.

The GAO warned in 1969 that many teens in federal summer jobs programs “regressed in their conception of what should reasonably be required in return for wages paid.” A decade later, it reported that most urban teens “were exposed to a worksite where good work habits were not learned or reinforced.” And in 1985, a National Academy of Science study found that government jobs and training programs isolated disadvantaged youth, thus making it harder for them to fit into the real job market.

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There are plenty of people below the poverty line who aren’t really poor, and some people above the poverty line who are indeed quite poor. The poverty line is a very arbitrary measure seemingly designed to justify lots of spending on welfare and social services for “disadvantaged” people who aren’t really poor, spending that generates jobs for government employees (and government-subsidized non-profits) who provide welfare and handouts.

Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation explains how many people below the poverty line aren’t really poor at all:

There is a wide chasm between the public’s concept of poverty and “poverty” as it is defined by the Census Bureau. The public generally thinks of poverty as . . . homelessness, or malnutrition and chronic hunger. In reality, the vast majority of those identified as poor by the annual census report did not experience significant material deprivation.

In a recent Rasmussen poll, adults agreed (by a ratio of six to one) that “a family that is adequately fed and living in a house or apartment that is in good repair” is not poor. By that simple test, about 80 percent of the Census Bureau’s “poor” people would not be considered poor by their fellow Americans.

In the same Rasmussen poll, however, 73 percent said poverty was a severe problem. Why the disconnect? The answer: Public perception of poverty in the U.S. is governed by the mainstream media, which invariably depicts the Census Bureau’s tens of millions of poor people as chronically hungry and malnourished, homeless or barely hanging on in overcrowded, dilapidated housing.

The strategy of the media is to take the least fortunate 3 percent or 4 percent of the poor and portray their condition as representative of most poor Americans. . .[But] they are far from typical among the poor. . . a poor child in American is far more likely to have a widescreen plasma television, cable or satellite TV, a computer and an Xbox or TiVo in his home than he is to be hungry. . .In 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture asked parents living in poverty this question: “In the last 12 months, were [your] children ever hungry but you just couldn’t afford more food?” Some 96 percent of poor parents responded “no”: Their children never had been hungry because of a lack of food resources at any time in the previous year. . . .

Here are more surprising facts about Americans defined as “poor” by the Census Bureau. . .

Eighty percent of poor households have air conditioning. By contrast, in 1970, only 36 percent of the entire U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning. Fully 92 percent of poor households have a microwave; two-thirds have at least one DVD player and 70 percent have a VCR. Nearly 75 percent have a car or truck; 31 percent have two or more cars or trucks. . .Nearly two-thirds have cable or satellite television. Half have a personal computer; one in seven have two or more computers. More than half of poor families with children have a video game system such as Xbox or PlayStation. . . A third have a widescreen plasma or LCD TV. . .

At a single point in time, only one in 70 poor persons is homeless. The vast majority of the houses or apartments of the poor are in good repair; only 6 percent are over-crowded. The average poor American has more living space than the average non-poor individual living in Sweden, France, Germany or the United Kingdom. . .Forty-two percent of all poor households own their home; on average, it’s a three-bedroom house with one-and-a-half baths, a garage, and a porch or patio. . . among the lowest-income fifth of households, inflation-adjusted consumer spending actually increased modestly during the recession.

Given these facts, how does the Census Bureau conclude that more than 40 million Americans are poor? They identify a family as poor the family’s cash income falls below specific thresholds. For example, in 2009 a family of four was “poor” if annual cash income fell below $21,954.

But in counting income, the Census Bureau ignores almost the entire welfare state. This year, government will spend over $900 billion on means-tested anti-poverty programs that provide cash, food, housing, medical care and targeted social services to poor and near-poor Americans. . .This means-tested welfare spending comes to around $9,000 for each poor or low-income American — virtually none of which is counted by census officials for purposes of calculating poverty or inequality.

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“The total number of U.S. food stamp recipients” surged “to an all-time high of 45.8 million people in May,” the most recent month for which data is available.  That’s “nearly 15 percent of the U.S. population.” “The average food stamp benefit was $133.80 per person” — which is more than I spent on food as a bachelor — “and $283.65 per household”  — which is more than my family typically spends on food in a month.

Loopholes in the law have enabled even millionaires to collect food stamps.   Food stamp fraud has also exploded.  As states have sought to implement antifraud measures, “The Obama administration is responding by cracking down on state governments’ antifraud measures,” notes James Bovard in the Wall Street Journal.  Food stamp amounts are generous enough to make fraud worthwhile for even some non-poor people.

Earlier, I wrote about how it is not difficult to live on a food stamps budget.  The Washington Post ran a story in its health section about how various people, such as the chef for a law firm and a natural foods store owner, were able to live quite well on a food stamps budget. For example, Rick Hindle, executive chef for the Skadden, Arps law firm “showed recently that you don’t have to spend hours in the kitchen to prepare healthful food for $1 or less per meal.”

Thanks to food stamps, Medicaid, and housing subsidies, and other welfare benefits, many “poor” people have far more disposable income than self-supporting households earning $40,000 to $60,000 a year.  Veronique de Rugy points to a finding that “a one-parent family of three making $14,500 a year (minimum wage) has more disposable income than a family making $60,000 a year” — even excluding benefits from Supplemental Security Income.  “America is now a country which punishes those middle-class people who not only try to work hard, but avoid scamming the system.”

These disincentives to work were expanded in the job-killing $800 billion stimulus package, which largely repealed welfare reform and increased the refundable tax-credits given to non-taxpaying “poor” households.  These refundable credits are being perpetuated in the costly $900 billion deal recently reached between Obama and congressional leaders.

The analysis de Rugy cites actually understates the disincentives to work, because it ignored the fact that many households that are “poor” in terms of taxable income are not poor at all once you factor in tax-free income from non-governmental sources.  For example, child support is tax-free to the recipient family, no matter how huge the payments they receive (for example, a billionaire may pay several million dollars a year in child support to each of his ex-girlfriends with kids, leaving them in tax-free luxury, and under New York’s child support guidelines, everyone is supposed to pay at least 17 percent of their gross income in child support for just one child, regardless of how high that income is.  In Massachusetts, middle-income households pay 25 percent of gross income for just one kid — which is around a third of their after-tax income — under that state’s child support guidelines).

The stimulus package contained provisions encouraging states to temporarily ratchet up their child support guidelines to reap more federal matching funds.  Maryland recently increased its child support guidelines to excessive levels, permanently.  Ohio is now weighing a massive proposed child-support increase, also apparently based on erroneous reasoning.  However, these increases probably will not provide a net benefit to state budgets, because increased federal funding is offset by incarceration and other direct and indirect costs associated with enforcement of excessive child-support guidelines).

Federal matching funds are having a negative effect on child welfare in other contexts, such as unwarranted CPS seizures.  (The federal government is increasingly using matching funds to meddle in areas of tort, criminal, family and domestic violence law traditionally handled by the states, sometimes in ways that actually increase domestic-violence-related deaths and injuries.) Financial obligations imposed by divorce courts are also harming soldiers and small businesses.

Federal food stamp allotments are so generous that they clearly exceed the amount needed to actually feed a family on a bare-bones budget.

The federal government is considering limiting, or even banning potatoes from school lunches. Officials fear the tasty tubers are causing childhood obesity. They would rather children eat more leafy greens instead.

The children are not pleased. One child told the Associated Press, “That would be so not cool. I love tater tots.”

Critics of the nanny state’s slow but steady mission creep often ask, “What’s next, a law saying eat your vegetables?” Well, apparently it is next. Freedom advocates need to find a new reductio ad absurdum.

In fact, the USDA already has a temporary regulation in place disallowing food stamps to be used to buy potatoes. The rule may be made permanent next year. Poverty has more important indignities than losing some choice of what you buy at the grocery store. But what a way to treat adults.

Eat your vegetables. Or else. They’re good for you.

1. New York wants to forbid residents from purchasing sugary drinks with food stamps.

2. Bedbugs are back in America with a vengeance. (Where’s DDT when you need it?)

3. A proposed San Francisco city ordinance would ban toys in McDonald’s happy meals unless the meals are under a certain calorie count and include fruits and vegetables.

4. There really is a market for everything: if you’re lonely, you can easily rent a friend for the day.

5. The National Republican Senatorial Committee is in hot water for casting out-of-state actors to play “ordinary” West Virginians in an ad attacking West Virgina Gov. Joe Manchin (D). The casting call specifically asked for actors with a “hicky” look.