Withered Food Stamps?

THE big decision regarding food stamps was made a couple of weeks ago when farm-state legislators prevailed on colleagues in the House of Representatives to keep the program in the federal arena. Food stamps were needed as ''a safety net for the truly needy,'' they argued.

The safety net also works for farmers, of course, bolstering the market for foodstuffs.

A number of Republican governors were not happy with that decision, however, and what finally emerged from the House Agriculture Committee was a compromise. Federal management remains, but cost controls and state options are built in.

Democrats warn the effect is still to weaken the program and harm low-income Americans. Republicans say they simply want greater efficiency and less spending growth. Both sides have a point.

The Republican bill's ''cap'' of a 2 percent yearly increase in spending would rein in a program whose budget has expanded by almost 50 percent since 1990, mainly because of the recession. It is now around $24 billion. The bill's backers estimate savings at $16.5 billion over the next five years.

But at what cost to needy food-stamp recipients? That could depend largely on food prices. If inflation stays low, a small yearly increase could maintain benefits at about current levels. If inflation climbs, or if a sliding economy hikes demand for stamps, such assumptions collapse.

Under the GOP plan, states can ''harmonize'' food-stamp eligibility with eligibility for other programs. Will that mean some culling of food-stamp rolls? Yes, but probably not in states that want the feds to shoulder much of the cost of helping the poor -- and probably not in farm states.

What about the Republicans' work requirement? In fact, the program already requires able-bodied people without young children to seek work.

The new rule would demand an actual job, not just signing up to find one. That's in line with today's emphasis on work incentives, but it could also entail new spending to locate or create jobs.

What about fraud? Everyone, including the president, is onto this issue. The bill that finally emerges must include steps to stop the ''laundering'' of food stamps into cash and other criminal schemes.

Someday food-stamp coupons may evolve into ''cards'' that transfer benefits electronically. That will eliminate much of the potential for fraud.

For now, however, the slips of quasi-money will remain, serving purposes both political and humanitarian. And the latter shouldn't be lost sight of in the dust raised by the former.

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