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Who wants to break food stamps?

Republicans in Congress say they want to make food stamps more efficient. To do so, they propose changes that would make the program more costly to operate and would end benefits to people who have trouble buying groceries.

In discussions of a farm bill, House Republicans want to cut food stamps, now called the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, by $40 billion over 10 years. Audaciously, they say the cuts could be made in wasteful spending, which would free money to help more people.

At best, these Republicans are wishful and uninformed in their thinking. At worst, they lie about wanting to cut help for the neediest families, including many children. Probably there is some of each.

Here is the sleight of hand going on: People who want to cut food aid don't like that states can qualify residents for SNAP if those residents already qualify for some other program for low-income people.

People in business call this efficiency. Knowing that a family has trouble making the rent, keeping the car legal or paying the electric bill is a pretty good indicator that the family probably has trouble affording groceries, too. None of these struggles help adults get or keep gainful employment or nurture children in body and mind.

While members of Congress may gag on the "ease" with which people are allowed to qualify for food assistance in some states, those families still have to meet a low-income test to get the help, however streamlined and businesslike state bureaucrats manage to make the process.

Of course, if the goal is to drag struggling families through the demoralizing process of justifying their straightened circumstances over and over to as many people, as many times as possible and to generate busywork for government employees, then they are on the right track.

Another detail that bothers some members of Congress is that a streamlined application process allows states to waive the asset limit of $2,000. So, to hear House Republicans tell it, you could have $20,000 in the bank and collect food stamps.

In a country this big and this interesting, that has probably happened. But how often? How many low-income people can save $20,000? How many middle-income people, for that matter? It would cost more to screen for such an unlikely abuse than the country could possibly save.

Besides, the food stamp program has actually been one of the better-run government programs. States undergo reviews, and they are penalized for errors. Interestingly, in the food stamp program, it has been considered an error if you sign up someone who did not meet the eligibility requirement. But it is also considered an error if you don't sign up someone who did meet it. Accuracy is the goal.

People in the for-profit sector might recognize this trust-but-verify approach. It assumes that competent people will carry out their duties correctly. A periodic sampling and review catches errors and makes sure they do.

Beating up on states for efficiently dispensing help on so basic a need is just a diversion. The question is really about your personal philosophy. Do you want to help as many needy people as possible? Or as few?

Miller, the Gazette's editorial page editor, can be reached at dawn@wvgazette.com.


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