Professor Carter: Food stamps aid working poor - Kendall College of Arts and Sciences

Professor Carter: Food stamps aid working poor

(The following post was written by Scott Carter, an associate professor of economics at The University of Tulsa, and first appeared in the Tulsa World on July 18, 2015.)

The recent flap over a derogatory comment concerning food stamps recipients posted on the Oklahoma Republican Party’s Facebook page provides an opportunity to consider the way the food stamp program functions, whom it actually serves, and what positive impact it has on Oklahoma’s gross state product.

The simplistic view of food stamps, now called SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), as being a government handout to the slothful, lazy, and those unwilling to work, is erroneous — period.

In Oklahoma, of the 608,000 people currently receiving SNAP almost 59 percent are children, and of the adults, 23 percent are employed and earn an income. This 23 percent constitutes a segment of the working poor, which when the numbers are plugged in, amounts to over 57,000 fellow employed and hard-working Oklahomans whose wages and salaries are low enough to qualify them for this federal program.

The inference that recipients are “hangers-on” and unwilling to leave the program is also not supported by the evidence. The average time spent on SNAP assistance is nine months and over 21,000 SNAP cases are closed monthly, as reported by the Oklahoma Department of Human Services.

The positive fiscal benefit the federal SNAP program has on Oklahoma’s gross state product is tremendous. Moody’s Analytics, far from a left-wing think tank, reports that in 2014 SNAP benefits pumped over $865 million into Oklahoma’s economy by virtue of the expenditures made in Oklahoma’s 3,400 local groceries, farmer’s markets, and other approved retail non-prepared food establishments. Moody’s also reports the positive multiplier effect of the SNAP program: $1 in SNAP benefits generates $1.70 in economic activity. This is something that helps all Oklahomans not just those receiving benefits.

The official apology on the party’s Facebook page, issued less than a day after the ruckus, actually defends the tenor of the initial post by affirming that “free market principles are the best way to stimulate our economic development rather than government subsidies or programs.”

The inference here of course is that SNAP is somehow at odds with the principle of free markets. In fact, significant numbers of the working poor are eligible to receive SNAP assistance due precisely to the “normal functioning” of the “free labor market” where often full-time employment does not pay enough to feed a family. In effect, SNAP assistance is a backdoor federal supplement to employers in local labor markets thereby allowing wages to remain dismally low.

If getting people off of the food stamps program is the expressed aim, then efforts should be doubled-down in trying to raise the state and federal minimum wage, thereby potentially eliminating the need for food assistance in the first place for the working poor who currently, given the “free labor market,” have no other option. But instead, again supposedly in defense of the “free market,” we find the Oklahoma Legislature spending precious time and resources passing legislation outlawing the very possibility of local minimum wage ordinances!

It is imperative, especially in the current heated climate, to move beyond scoring political points especially at the expense of some of the most vulnerable fellow Oklahomans amongst us, and to refrain from ideological argumentation and innuendo not in any way supported by evidence or sound economic theory. This is something we should expect of our elected state officials and political leaders no matter the party affiliation.