As you probably know, complaints about the size and cost of the food stamp program (now known as SNAP, for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) has become an ever-more-prominent part of the conservative argument that America is awash in redistributive “welfare” spending (they can’t much make that case about cash assistance any more). It was no accident that during his 2012 presidential campaign, Newt Gingrich called Barack Obama the “food stamp president.” That’s now a quasi-racial appeal along the lines of the old “welfare queen” smear.

Just today, the Wall Street Journal had a report on rising SNAP costs, with the provocative title, “Use of Food Stamps Swells Even as Economy Improves,” with the planted axiom being that there should be an inverse relationship between food stamps and the unemployment rate.

But as Jordan Weissmann points out at The Atlantic, that’s a false premise:

[R]epeat after me: There are record numbers of Americans on food stamps today because there are record numbers of Americans in poverty (records begin in 1959.)

As of 2011, there were 46.2 million men, women, and children living below the U.S. poverty line. There isn’t much reason to believe that the last year of mediocre job growth has dented that number. And until it plunges, the food stamp rolls are going to stay full — plain and simple.

One might add that it’s more than a bit hypocritical for Republicans to deride reductions in the unemployment rate as meaningless while simultaneously complaining that counter-cyclical assistance programs should be shedding beneficiaries. But it’s all kinda beside th point:

Of all the social welfare programs the U.S. has, we should probably be worrying about food stamps the least. Its beneficiaries are overwhelmingly needy. In 2010, about 87 percent were at or below the poverty line and almost half were children. Only 3.5 percent had incomes higher than 130 percent of the poverty line. Meanwhile, the program arguably encourages more work by letting unemployed parents take the first job they can find, even if it won’t pay enough to feed their family on its own. It’s also hyper-efficient stimulus. The money has to be spent instead of saved, meaning it cycles quickly back into the economy.

Our food stamp rolls are eye popping, but they’re not the problem. Poverty is.

This won’t be much of an answer to those conservatives who claim that helping poor people is why they are poor in the first place. But that’s another issue.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.