Journal Issue: Children and Welfare Reform Volume 12 Number 1 Winter/Spring 2002
The food stamp program is the principal federal food assistance program, and provides a critical supplement to family income for poor households. Most food stamp recipients are children, and nearly 80% of food stamp benefits go to households with children.87 In 2000, the average household with children that received food stamps had a gross monthly income averaging $727, and received a monthly food stamp benefit averaging $234.88 The federal government pays the full cost of the benefits and shares program administrative costs with the states.89
During congressional debates on the 1996 welfare law, the Republican leadership proposed that the food stamp program and a set of other federal nutrition programs be repealed, and that their funding be consolidated into food assistance block grants to states. As was the case with Medicaid, however, the proposal faced strong opposition and was dropped. Nevertheless, curtailments in food stamp program eligibility and benefits ultimately represented about half the spending reductions originally projected under the 1996 law.90 Key changes in the food stamp program:
- Restricted food stamp eligibility for able-bodied adults without children to no more than 3 months in a 36-month period, with exceptions for individuals working or in a work activity for at least 20 hours a week;
- Made most legal immigrants ineligible for food stamps (as discussed in greater detail in the later section on Immigrants);
- Restricted eligibility and reduced benefit levels by changing eligibility rules related to household deductions and income, and by removing provisions that had adjusted food stamp benefits to reflect inflation; and
- Provided that a household's food stamp benefits could not increase if a family's TANF assistance was reduced due to a sanction, and allowed states to impose food stamp sanctions against individuals who violated TANF rules.
Similar to trends in welfare receipt, food stamp program participation began to decline in 1994, and the drop accelerated significantly after enactment of the 1996 law. Between March 1994 and March 2001, participation dropped from 28 million to about 17 million persons, a decline of 39%.91 The decline in children's participation was especially sharp, falling from 86% of eligible children in 1994 to 69% in 1998, with over three-quarters of the decline coming after 1996.92 As noted in a 1999 report from the U.S. General Accounting Office, "there is a growing gap between the number of children living in poverty...and the number of children receiving food stamp assistance."93
Moreover, an analysis by the U.S. Department of Agriculture concluded that most of the decline in the food stamp caseload between 1994 and 1999 was because of a drop in participation by eligible adults and children, not because fewer families were eligible.94 Only a small portion (8%) was due to provisions of the 1996 law that restricted food stamp eligibility. About one-third of the decline (35%) occurred because household income and assets grew during the economic expansion. The bulk of the decline (56%) was due to fewer eligible individuals participating in the program. A sharp drop in participation occurred among eligible citizen children residing with noncitizens (from 80% to 46%). Participation also dropped among families leaving welfare, even though most of these families continued to be eligible financially,95 and many still reported food insecurity and shortages.96 Participation dropped for individuals with earnings and those without earnings. Program administrative practices, confusion, lack of awareness, and individual choices all appeared to play a role in declining participation rates.97,98
The food stamp program is scheduled for reauthorization in 2002, as is TANF. Food stamp reauthorization discussions have mainly focused on ways to increase participation among eligible households, and on the need for simplification and for improvements in quality control procedures, as summarized in Box 7. Another concern is whether to restore food stamp benefits for legal immigrants, an issue discussed in greater detail in the later section on Immigrants.