April 22, 2010
The Government Accountability Office recently reviewed 18 federal programs that provide food and nutrition assistance to low-income households, a subset of the nearly 70 programs that provide food and related subsides.
The GAO notes that these programs have “emerged piecemeal” over the past several decades. Policymakers are good at adding programs but rarely subtract them or even rationalize the tangled web of bureaucracies. The GAO notes:
[T]he 18 food assistance programs show signs of program overlap, which can create unnecessary work and lead to inefficient use of resources. For example, some of the programs provide comparable benefits to similar target populations. Further, overlapping eligibility requirements create duplicative work for both service providers and applicants.
In addition to wasteful bureaucracy, the GAO concluded for 11 of the 18 programs that “little is known” about their effectiveness. That’s right—after pumping billions of dollars of your money into some of these programs, the government experts don’t even know whether they work.
For the other 7 programs, the effectiveness was mixed. For instance, the GAO found that “the literature is inconclusive regarding whether SNAP (food stamps) alleviates hunger and malnutrition in low-income households.” One study the GAO cited found that “food security more often worsened than improved for households that began receiving SNAP benefits…[and] as households left the program, their food security status more often improved than worsened.” The administration’s latest budget proposes to spend $73 billion on SNAP, yet the program may be counterproductive.
Some programs are found to be beneficial. For example, the GAO cited research that found “participation in the Special Milk Program has positive effects, including increasing children’s intake of vitamins and minerals found in milk.” It seems pretty obvious that if participants drink milk, their intake of vitamins and minerals in milk would increase. However, the relevant question is whether the cost of a government program outweighs the benefits. Unfortunately, the GAO says that “[a]ssessing whether the benefits of program participation outweigh the programs’ costs is beyond the scope of this report.”
The susceptibility to fraud and abuse in alone suggest that they do not. According to a Cato essay on fraud and abuse, improper payments made by the food stamp program cost taxpayers almost $2 billion annually. And one-quarter of those receiving free and reduced-cost lunches are not legally eligible, which costs taxpayers about $1.4 billion a year.
See this essay for more on federal food subsidies programs.