Debunking Paul Ryan’s Bizarre Claim That Food Stamps Are ‘Unsustainable’

In response to a question from ThinkProgress at a policy summit yesterday, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) not only attempted to defend the tax cuts for millionaires in his new budget, but also dove into greater detail about why he so drastically cuts support programs for poor and low-income Americans:

RYAN: With respect to these programs you mentioned. They’re growing at unsustainable rates. Food stamps have quadrupled over the last ten years, and that’s in excess of the recession. We have to remember that if we just keep these programs on this unsustainable path, then they will crash. Then we’ll have a debt crisis. Then we will not be able to service these people, because under a debt crisis you’re cutting indiscriminately across the board in a very ugly way… So what we’re saying is let’s get ahead of this problem, let’s pre-empt a debt crisis, and let’s get these programs working better so that they’re growing at a more sustainable rate.

It’s not clear what Ryan means by “quadrupled… in excess of the recession.” From 2000 to 2008, before the recession began, spending on food stamps (otherwise known as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) went from $18.3 billion to $39.3 billion — barely doubling. By 2011, it had increased to $77.6 billion. That is closer to a quadrupling from 2000, but this includes the effects of the recession.

More importantly, SNAP spending as a matter of dollar amounts does not indicate whether the program is sustainable. What counts on that score is spending as a percentage of GDP, or what share of the wealth produced annually by the American economy is required to fund the program.

In 2000, SNAP accounted for 0.19 percent of GDP. By 2008 that had risen to a slightly larger small slice of 0.27 percent of GDP. It then spiked to 0.52 percent in 2011 as a result of the recession. But over the coming years, as the economy recovers and fewer Americans will be in need of economic assistance, it’s projected to drop back below 0.3 percent.

It’s also worth noting that Ryan is pushing catastrophic cuts to SNAP and similar programs as the answer to, well, catastrophic cuts that Paul Ryan fears are coming. According to CAP Senior Fellow Donna Cooper, the cuts to food stamps in the House Republican budget would “force America’s poorest families to forgo as many as 8.2 billion meals a year,” with the loss in grocery sales causing the elimination of about 184,000 jobs.