It's worth recalling Mr. Lewis's fear and loathing amid this week's debate over a GOP attempt to impose a few modest reforms on America's exploding food-stamp entitlement. Democrats and the media are predicting a moral catastrophe, with the same over-the-top rhetoric, and they are as wrong now as they were then.
The nearby chart shows the explosion in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) from 2000-2012. The costs keep rising and will be about $83 billion this year, more than double the amount as recently as 2008. One-in-seven Americans, or 47.7 million, now let taxpayers pay for some or all of their grocery bills. That's more than the combined population of California, Oregon and Washington.
You'd expect the rolls to expand during a recession, but note that they are still climbing even in the fifth year of an economic recovery. Never has the program exploded like this. One reason is that the Obama Administration has actively sought to turn food stamps into another middle-class entitlement.
One of President Obama's first actions was to suspend the 20 hour-a-week work requirement for able-bodied adults as part of the 2009 stimulus. His budget requests in 2011, 2012 and 2013 called for the continued suspension of work requirements. Thanks to federal waivers, work rules remain effectively void in 45 states.
Mr. Obama also eliminated a long-standing three-month limit for employable adults to receive food stamps. Now benefits can last for three years or more. Congressional Research Service and USDA data show that the number of employable adults on food stamps without children expanded by 164% from 2007 to 2011 and only one in five of these recipients is working. College students are collecting food stamps in record numbers.
Mr. Obama also made food stamps more popular by giving recipients a cost-of-living adjustment that raised the value of food stamps by more than 10%. Families can now receive up to $10,000 in food stamps a year. Keep in mind this is only one of more than 50 federal welfare programs.
The bill that House Republicans passed Thursday evening would try to reverse these dependency trends. It would reinstate work requirements for employable adults without children and allow states to begin experimenting with work requirements for able-bodied recipients. It would eliminate the roughly $40 million a year that the government spends to convince Americans to enroll in the program.
And it would close the "categorical eligibility" loophole that has put 1.8 million Americans on food stamps who don't qualify, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Categorical eligibility allows individuals to automatically qualify for SNAP if they receive benefits from other low-income assistance programs, such as cash welfare, Supplemental Security Income, or home heating subsidies.
Since these programs often don't have asset requirements, this allows states to give food benefits to those with homes, cars or bank accounts worth well above the limit for food stamps. In a September 2009 memo to state officials, federal food-stamp administrator Jessica Shahin wrote that "We encourage you to continue promoting expanded categorical eligibility as a way to increase SNAP participation."
The House reforms are sensible, but they are far less stringent than the 1996 welfare reform. That law required nearly all employable recipients of cash welfare (including single mothers) to work or get job training. Unlike welfare reform, food stamps would still have no time limit on benefits and families with children wouldn't be affected.
The GOP reforms will save taxpayers about $4 billion a year from the more than $80 billion cost of food stamps. But those savings are secondary to the social value of starting again to replace the lifestyle of government dependency with the self-respect and upward economic mobility that comes from work.