Cliff-Diving into Dependency, and Trolling for Democratic Votes

While writing up this month's column on Oklahoma's relatively strong economy, I came across many sets of troubling statistics about the growing dependency culture.

It started when I noticed at this USDA table that average monthly enrollment in "SNAP," which the rest of us still know as food stamps, had risen by almost 13% in the Sooner State during the most recent federal fiscal year after going down the previous two years. I noticed that this increase was much lower than the national average of 19%. Then I remembered seeing a headline telling me that food stamp enrollment had almost reached 40 million as of February. It turns out that this is an increase of 25% over the number enrolled in December 2008, just 13 months earlier.

After further research, I've learned that welfare-related "entitlement" program enrollment and spending are up in virtually every major federal program. Eligibility rules are looser. Individual and family benefit amounts provided have shot up. Costs are going through the roof. The menu of available benefits continues to expand.

It would be one thing if we had individuals and families starving in the streets by the millions before this wanton expansion began. But of course we didn't. Welfare rolls were continuing 12 years of decline until about a year ago. Food stamp enrollment was growing, but in current context not by much. In August 2007, about a year before the floodgates opened, Robert Rector described the status of those deemed as being "in poverty" in the U.S. as follows:

Overall, the typical American defined as poor by the government has a car, air conditioning, a refrigerator, a stove, a clothes washer and dryer, and a microwave. He has two color televisions, cable or satellite TV reception, a VCR or DVD player, and a stereo. He is able to obtain medical care. His home is in good repair and is not overcrowded. By his own report, his family is not hungry, and he had sufficient funds in the past year to meet his family's essential needs. While this individual's life is not opulent, it is equally far from the popular images of dire poverty conveyed by the press, liberal activists, and politicians.

What happened?

In the case of food stamps, it has become easier to qualify for them. As I noted in March of last year, a Warren County, Ohio, couple was able to qualify for benefits even though they had $80,000 in the bank, a paid-off $300,000 home, and two fairly up-to-date vehicles (one a Mercedes). Matt Hurley at Weapons of Mass Discussion, the blogger who originally exposed this situation, also "received additional emails ... (from people) who provided two other (similar) case stories."

You can even be a college kid with rich parents and qualify for food stamps, as long as you strike an impoverished pose:

... the USDA has made it easy for them, regardless of their socioeconomic background, to qualify. Many college kids are “poor” on paper even if they’re from well-to-do homes.

And if they live at home with Mom and Dad, they still may qualify — so long as they can show that Mom and Dad prepare only half of their meals.

And how about those benefits? Well, what's known as the maximum monthly allotment, or the amount you or your family will receive if you have no available income or resources with which to buy food under the program's rules, went up by 9% and 13.5% in fiscal 2009 and 2010, respectively. If you don't recall food prices increasing by 23% or so during the past two years, you're not alone. "Food and beverages" as measured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics went up 3.3% during the 12 months that ended in April 2009; the new category "food at home" has not gone up at all in the past twelve months. Until two years ago, benefit levels closely resembled USDA's estimated budget for what it called its "thrifty meal plan." Now I guess it's just too much to expect eligible food stamp recipients to be frugal with taxpayers' money.