The Food Stamp Program has changed its name to SNAP, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — an appropriate moniker, since in current economic conditions, states are making it a snap to qualify.

New York is a leader in cranking up the rolls: eliminating finger imaging to stop double dipping, waiving resource rules, funding aggressive enrollment campaigns and taking advantage of getting applicants the most generous income deductions possible for shelter costs.

Participation and costs have soared since 2007. Nationally, the numbers served are up 70 percent, to 44.7 million people, and the cost is now $78 billion, up from just over $33 billion. In New York, enrollment since 2007 has risen from 1.8 million to 3.1 million at a total cost of $5.5 billion. SNAP benefits are 100 percent federally financed, but the state ponies up 50 percent of administrative costs.

There are two ways to view this explosion of enrollees and cost, one good, one disturbing. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which administers the program, correctly points out that SNAP is perhaps the most responsive program to changing economic conditions. That’s good for struggling families and individuals who need the help when times are tough.

The program automatically expands to meet increased need when the economy is in recession and contracts when the economy is growing, making sure that food gets to people who need it.

Participation has continued to grow during the economic downtown during the period 2008 through 2010. As the number of unemployed or underemployed persons and persons in poverty grew, so did SNAP participation, reaching 45 million in fiscal year 2011.

But this reality is also the problem.  There is no better economic misery index at both the national and state level than record numbers of people receiving SNAP benefits and for a protracted period of time – New York’s enrollment has been over three million since March of 2011. Sadly, the participation numbers are reflective of the nation’s and New York’s failure to find a way out of the current economic dead zone and the taxpayer costs are becoming unsustainable.

Governor Andrew Cuomo in his announcement ending finger imaging said that over one million eligible New Yorkers did not receive SNAP benefits and that $1.4 million in federal funds was not being claimed. But such a claim is difficult to square with reports by USDA. They say that just about every SNAP dollar that could be issued if every eligible person participated in the program is already going out the door.

The program provided 91 percent of the total benefits possible, an indication that benefits reach those most in need.

It’s not good news that one in every seven Americans and almost one in every six New Yorkers needs this kind of help. Still, keeping the rolls high seems to be a USDA goal because SNAP reduces poverty (which is true – except SNAP and the earned income tax credit, which also reduces poverty, are never counted as income in official poverty measures, thus inflating the numbers of poor).

Instead of growing SNAP, the goal should be growing the private sector economy and creating more jobs. In response, the rate of poverty will drop as will the SNAP rolls and costs.  That sounds like a better plan for everyone.

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