Battle Over ‘Unsustainable’ Food Stamps Spending Looms Large on Capitol Hill Amid Threat of Government Shutdown

Republicans are eyeing steep cuts to government welfare nutrition spending, which ballooned during the Covid pandemic and has become rife with fraud.

AP/Jacquelyn Martin, file
The Capitol on September 8, 2022. Lawmakers have a lot of budget work to do upon returning from break. AP/Jacquelyn Martin, file

As Congress prepares to return from its summer vacation and begin the budget negotiation process, one key sticking point for legislators and the White House is funding for nutrition programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, as well as the Women, Infants, and Children Nutrition Program, called WIC by many. A large increase in funding for the programs during Covid combined with rising food costs has caused costs to balloon, leading Republicans to eye the programs for cuts. 

According to a report from the Foundation for Government Accountability, funding for food stamps cost taxpayers $119 billion in 2022, with the “vast majority of that growth occurring in the last three years.”

“In December 2019, for example, taxpayers were spending roughly $4.5 billion per month on food stamp benefits,” the report states. “But by December 2022, monthly food stamp spending had skyrocketed to nearly $11 billion.”

While the pandemic can help explain the drastic increase in funding, President Biden’s executive actions are also a major contributor. An “emergency allotment” policy instituted by the Department of Agriculture in 2021 saw a big expansion in benefits — an average increase in individual payments was 27 percent. 

It does not help that the food stamp program has become rife with fraud, especially after the money started flowing during the height of the Covid pandemic. According to an investigation by the Wall Street Journal, tens of millions of dollars have been stolen from nutrition assistance programs by foreign criminals. 

A February report from the Congressional Budget Office showed that an additional $100 billion will be required to meet demand for nutrition programs over the next decade. In a statement, the top Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Senator Boozman, said the increase is “unsustainable and must be thoroughly debated as Congress considers the next farm bill.” Mr. Boozman and his Agriculture Committee colleagues will be responsible for writing the Farm Bill during the budget process set to resume this month, and they have already signaled the GOP would like to see billions of dollars cut from the program. 

WIC is likely to see a large cut. The program, which provides assistance to pregnant women and new mothers, as well as to children up to the age of 5, has tripled in size since the beginning of the Covid pandemic, according to an analysis by the Washington Post. The expanded eligibility — which was approved by a Republican Congress and President Trump — coupled with higher costs for food have made the program more generous than it ever had been in the past. 

The greatest threat to WIC is a possible government shutdown, which could see the nation’s capital come to a standstill for days if not weeks should Republicans and Democrats fail to reach a short-term funding deal that looks ever more necessary. 

Two key House Republican caucuses, the Republican Study Committee and the House Freedom Caucus — which combined are composed of more than 200 of the House’s 222 members — have already said they will not pass a short-term funding bill unless aggressive cuts are made to programs like food stamps and WIC. Other spending cuts Republicans would like to see in the coming budget fight include slashing aid to Ukraine and capping the discretionary spending limits. 

According to the Department of Agriculture, which administers both food stamps and WIC, historic increases in food prices have contributed to the bloated spending on the nutrition programs. New data from the department show that while food price inflation is due to cool in the next two years to 5 percent — down from its 10 percent increase in 2022 — it will continue to be historically high, leading to greater required funding for the program if changes to either benefits or the implementation of work requirements are implemented. 

In order to tamp down future spending on the nutrition programs, Republicans used leverage during this year’s debt ceiling negotiations to gain concessions on work requirements. Previously, only recipients of food stamps under the age of 50 and with no children were required to work in some form in order to receive benefits. 

Now, the work requirement age will be increased over the next two years until those individuals under the age of 55 with no children have to work in order to receive food stamp benefits. 

WIC has already proved to be one of the biggest sticking points for federal negotiators, with the White House demanding billions of dollars more for the program while House Republicans seek significant cuts. On Thursday, President Biden sent a formal request to Congress for another $1.4 billion in nutrition assistance funding in a short-term budget deal, though Republicans have made it clear that no such supplemental funding would be granted if they had their way. 

“WIC right now is in a tremendous growth period,” the director of nutrition policy at the Food Research & Action Center, Geri Hency, told the Post. “Low-income families are basically making a decision by evaluating how hard it’s going to be to participate relative to what they get.”


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