Have you noticed that the Department of Defense refers to itself as DOD, Justice as DOJ, Education as DOE, and so on, but at the Department of Agriculture it's USDA? These bureaucrats cannot even allow an honest acronym into the mix, because it might hint at the ridiculousness of their long-obsolete agency that still manages to pass out about $150 billion per year. I'm going to use the honest acronym.
Where does all that money go? According to the DOA budget, far and away the biggest category is so-called "nutrition" programs, of which Food Stamps, aka SNAP, is the biggest, followed by CNP (Child Nutrition Program) and WIC (Women, Infants, Children) for a total of well over $100 billion per year. And this number has mushroomed over the course of the Obama administration. In the 4+ Obama years, supposedly a period of economic "recovery," Food Stamp spending has about doubled, from about $40 billion to about $80 billion per year. Before Obama Food Stamp spending tended to increase during recessions but go down during recoveries. It has been widely reported that in recent years Federal and state governments have hired recruiters to pressure people to get onto Food Stamps. Also, eligibility rules have been revised, particularly to eliminate most asset restrictions (million dollar home? no problem!) and to make automatically eligible for Food Stamps all people who are eligible for any other Federal welfare program. I have previously covered this issue here; see also a Heritage Foundation article here.
The explosion of spending has been so enormous that some in Congress have started to notice. Indeed, the Food Stamp program is at the top of the list of some would-be budget cutters in the Republican House of Representatives.
Time for the bureaucracy to swing into action at what it does best -- promoting its own growth! And thus we have on the front page of today's New York Times the story headlined "On the Edge of Poverty, at the Center of a Debate." The story is mostly garden-variety New York Times advocacy for bigger government, combining carefully-edited heartrending stories of people presented as having no ability to feed themselves other than by government handouts, with attacks on cold-hearted "Tea Party" Republicans whose only goal is to leave the needy to starve. But the notable thing about the Times story is that the "news" that supposedly makes this an issue for today is the release yesterday of a report from the DOA titled Household Food Security in the United States in 2012. This report is one of the most transparently deceptive exercises in bureaucratic self-promotion that you will ever see. Of course, it is reported in the Times totally at face value, without the slightest hint of skepticism or questioning. Hey, these are the neutral, expert bureaucrats! We at the Times would never be so gauche as to suggest that they might be operating in their own narrow self-interest!
So let us examine the DOA study. It purports to be a report on "food insecurity" in the United States in 2012. How do you get a handle on that kind of an ill-defined concept? Easy! Commission a survey, to be designed and carried out by the thoroughly neutral, objective people in the DOA's own research branch, known as the Economic Research Service. Ask a bunch of questions designed to get the answer you want, and then just take whatever answers you get without double checking. The survey has 18 questions, but just consider Question #1 to get a little flavor:
“We worried whether our food would run out before we got money to buy more.” Was that often, sometimes, or never true for you in the last 12 months?
Do yourself a favor and don't read this 33 pages of bureaucratese. I'll skip to the result: 14.5% of Americans, almost 50 million people, have either "low" or "very low" food security. Wow! That must be a big problem! Better give the DOA lots more money to solve it!
This report is obviously an intentionally deceptive effort to promote an increased budget for the DOA. But still, it is sufficiently transparent that an intelligent reader, certainly a sophisticated journalist, ought to be able to see through it, because in its efforts to promote more spending the report cannot help but be completely damning of the DOA's efforts to date. How could it possibly be that we spend $100 billion a year for nutrition assistance to the needy, with well over 50 million recipients, and yet there are still almost 50 million "food insecure" people in the United States. Isn't this saying that the existing programs, at $100+ billion per year, aren't having any effect whatsoever on alleviating the problem that you yourself define? And doesn't that mean either (1) "food security" isn't really the goal, so why are we even measuring it? or (2) if "food security" is the goal, don't the existing programs need to be completely scrapped and replaced with something that actually addresses the goal? The New York Times, needless to say, is not capable of asking any such probing type of question.
You might be thinking, it would be extremely relevant here to know if the people reporting "food insecurity" are the same people who are already receiving benefits under SNAP, CNP and WIC, or different people, or how much overlap is there? It's almost impossible to believe, but they do not ask that question. Believe me, they do not want you to know the answer. Any possible answer will with 100% certainty reveal the failure of their current programs, at least if the measure of success or failure has anything to do with "food security."
Think about the Food Stamp program for a moment and you will realize that no amount of spending on this program will ever do much to reduce this "food insecurity" thing. In the Food Stamp program, you get a monthly allotment on an EBT card, and you have to manage the allotment to last the month. Lots and lots of people who aren't good at managing money will spend it early and run out toward the end of the month. That will still be true if you double or triple or quadruple the allotments. In fact, I would assert that the whole "food insecurity" concept was devised specifically to be used to advocate for more spending yet in a way that no amount of increased spending could ever fix, or even make much of a dent in, the problem. It's just a transparent fraud, like the so-called "poverty rate." (See more on that here.)
Of course, if the goal actually were "food security," then a program could be designed to achieve that goal for everybody immediately at a small fraction of the current combined cost of SNAP/CNP/WIC. Make food available to anyone with an eligibility card, but only at food kitchens that you must go to. Make the food healthy and nutritious but bland and tasteless. Lots of vegetables, which you must eat or lose continuing eligibility. Open 24/7. Install harsh fluorescent lighting. Everyone will be completely "food secure" -- you can eat as much as you need whenever you want. But something tells me that millions and millions of people currently taking Food Stamps (which can be used to buy virtually anything at a grocery store, including steaks and alcoholic beverages, or sold on a black market for cash) will suddenly find that they are completely capable of feeding themselves. Believe me, nobody in the DOA actually wants "food security" for the poor.