Congress is in an uproar over the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps.
In the past half-decade, mostly because of the recession, enrollment grew to 21.1 million U.S. households - encompassing one-seventh of the population when you include children and other dependents - at a cost of $78 billion in fiscal 2011, according to the Department of Agriculture.
House Republicans want to cut SNAP by at least $20 billion over the next decade, and Democrats want to preserve it pretty much as is. The dispute sent the 2013 farm bill - legislation in which SNAP has traditionally been twinned with subsidies for farmers - down to an unexpected defeat last month.
Fortunately, there is a solution. Abolish food stamps, on one condition: Congress would have to distribute the SNAP budget among other programs for the poor, for which many SNAP recipients also qualify.
The result would be a safety net as generous as today's but considerably more efficient and transparent - and without the Faustian linkage to subsidies for agribusiness.
Supporters hail SNAP as a key income support for the working poor, seniors and the disabled, as well as an "automatic stabilizer" that bolsters demand during economic downturns and then recedes during recoveries.
That's true - but the government already has programs, and bureaucracies, for each of those groups and policy goals. For example, a third of the seniors living on food stamps also get Supplemental Security Income (SSI).
And unlike food stamps, the other programs - SSI, the earned-income tax credit, unemployment insurance - deliver benefits in the form most poor people find most useful: cash.
Reallocating the SNAP budget to beef up the rest of the safety net would also eliminate food stamps as a perennial political target.
The current flap is about work incentives. Some in the GOP argue that rising SNAP enrollment is re-creating the dependency that was supposed to have been abolished by welfare reform in 1996. The House passed an amendment by Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla., last week that would let states impose welfare-reform-like work requirements on SNAP - and keep half the money they save.
Democrats understandably recoiled at a measure that gave states an incentive to kick people off the rolls. It did seem like overkill for a program in which 30.5 percent of recipient households in fiscal 2011 had earned income, according to USDA data - and an additional 24.6 percent of households consist of elderly and disabled individuals living alone. They are not expected to work.
Still, what little systematic research has been done suggests that food stamps exert "modest" downward pressure on labor supply, as economist Hilary Hoynes of the University of California at Davis put it in a paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research. This mostly shows up as a reduction in the number of hours single parents spend working, Hoynes found.
If the working poor's current share of food stamps went instead to increase the earned-income tax credit and expand eligibility for it, Republicans and Democrats would have less to argue about. The tax credit is a wage supplement, delivered through the income tax system, widely considered one of the most successful federal programs at encouraging work and eliminating poverty. It has also enjoyed consistent bipartisan backing.
About 2.7 million households, or 13 percent of all households that received food stamps at any time in 2011, consisted of single, childless, non-elderly, non-disabled adults who did not work. It's not clear if or how food stamps discouraged them from working, as the program's rules limit able-bodied working-age individuals to only three months' worth of food stamps in any 36-month period. Nevertheless, my plan would aim a powerful work incentive at this group by applying the earned-income tax credit fully to single, childless workers - which, perversely, is not the case at present. A new bill co-sponsored by Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., includes that very suggestion, albeit not as a substitute for food stamps.
An obvious objection to my plan is that food stamps would no longer be there to bolster incomes in a recession. But that shouldn't matter. Remember, part of the funding would go to an expanded and more generous unemployment insurance program.
Another obvious objection is that my plan would never work politically. That's probably true. But, really, what's not to like? For Republicans, there's a stronger work incentive. For Democrats, there's no reduction in the overall size of the safety net.
All the money would go to low-income people who are either working, jobless through no fault of their own, elderly or disabled. If they aren't the "deserving poor," who is?
Charles Lane is a member of The Washington Post's editorial board.