Tighten up the requirements

Published 10:05 pm Monday, July 2, 2012

During the past five years, the number of people in Suffolk receiving food stamps from the federal government has nearly doubled, according to statistics from the Suffolk Department of Social Services. In May, 6,523 families in the city received food stamps, which are now called Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program benefits. For the fiscal year that ended Saturday, roughly $20 million was paid to Suffolk residents to buy food.

It’s sobering to realize just how many people rely on taxpayers to help put food on the table each week. Part of the increase has surely been a result of the Great Recession, which cost Suffolk citizens jobs and earning power, much as it has affected others throughout the nation. Thus, as the economy improves, social services officials expect the percentage of people receiving SNAP benefits to fall.

But none of those officials expect that percentage to fall anywhere close to its pre-recession levels. That’s because concurrent with the recession-related increases, as a part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009, the Obama administration also relaxed the requirements for families to be eligible for the food aid.

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Where the percentage of food stamp recipients in Suffolk had been relatively flat until 2007 or so, that number began to rise with the beginning of the recession and took off under the new eligibility rules. Officials say the number of recipients has begun to level off, perhaps reflecting a slowly improving jobs climate in Suffolk, but the major expansion of those receiving government benefits has already taken place.

And there’s been more to that expansion than just an increase in the number of food stamps distributed around the city. Other forms of public assistance also have increased, according to statistics from the Department of Social Services. In fiscal year 2011, Suffolk residents received about $122.8 million in food stamps, Medicaid, energy assistance, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and other benefits, with the “vast majority” of that assistance going to Medicaid, officials say.

In a compassionate society, there is surely a role for government — and therefore taxpayers — to play in helping out those who are unable to help themselves. That’s what these programs were originally designed to accomplish, and the recession has created more families with a pressing, temporary need for help.

But the non-recession-related expansion of the food stamp program appears to be more than a temporary one, and that’s a problem for both taxpayers, who can ill afford to pay for programs that are not absolutely necessary, and for aid recipients, who often lose self esteem and motivation the longer they stay on the government dole.

There are plenty of examples in Europe today of what happens when social engineering takes place through unchecked government spending. The results are not pretty, and the remedies are frighteningly painful. It’s time for Americans to take a long, hard look at what they must do to avoid following Europe into the abyss. Returning the rules for food stamp eligibility to their pre-ARRA levels would be a good place to start.