Foundation of social safety net should be helping people become independent.

IN THE LARGER context of things, a savings of $5.5 billion over five years by tightening some rules for food stamps is all but irrelevant to a federal budget of more than $4 trillion annually.

While plenty of folks like to point fingers and rant about welfare deadbeats cheating working taxpayers, the real money driving spending and deficits comes in other categories - Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, interest on the national debt and tax cuts that create less income at the same time politicians choose to increase expenses.

A good country and a good people willingly lend a helping hand to the less fortunate who need it.

But it's fair to ask: How do you define those "who need it?"

And, what should society expect in exchange for financial help?

A NEW RULE proposed for would-be recipients of food stamps - officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) - would tighten work requirements for a specific category of people, those who are able-bodied adults with no dependents. The government acknowledges imposition of the rule could remove about 700,000 people from benefits.

Current law prohibits able-bodied adults with no dependents from receiving food assistance for more than three months during a three-year period. There's a waiver allowing benefits if the person is working or taking part in educational training at least 80 hours a month. States also are allowed to waive the time limits to adjust for economic ups and downs in the workforce.

The new rule, set to take effect next year, would make those waivers tougher to obtain.

PROPONENTS CITE a booming economy in which there are more open jobs than people seeking to fill them. And they stress that no children or families are impacted since the rule applies only to able-bodied adults without dependents.

Not surprisingly, benefit advocates think all this is cold-hearted and mean.

We disagree with that.

America has the strongest economy in the world and its free enterprise system is based on people working for a living. Work is the pathway to a better life.

Government benefits for the needy should not be a forever entitlement, but rather a bridge to help recipients transition into opportunities to take care of themselves and their loved ones. If able-bodied adults with no dependents cannot be nudged toward work the system's philosophical foundation is deeply in error.

REPORTING SUGGESTS the administration also is working on rule changes that would tighten requirements for families with dependents. While it's sensible to withhold judgment pending release of details, much more skepticism should be applied over plans that could end up harming kids. Remember, overall, these dollar figures are relatively paltry.

It's the governing principles that matter.

A caring society looks out for the truly needy, but expects those who are capable of meeting their own needs to get busy doing so.

That's fair. And that's right.