Nothing quite brings the Republican Party and its vision for America into focus as sharply as the fight over Food Stamps. Suffice it to say, it’s not a pretty picture.
GOP House members voted last week to cut $40 billion out of the country's primary food security program over the next 10 years. The cuts would knock an estimated 3.8 million Americans off Food Stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP. Coincidentally, that number is just slightly less than the 4 million people that the program kept from slipping below the official poverty line last year. Maybe the GOP loves the poor after all. Republicans seem to be doing their damnedest to make sure there are more and more of them.
Keep in mind we're talking about food here. Not Health care. Not education. Not even shelter. America's threadbare social "safety net" doesn't guarantee any of those. But food? Really?The world's richest country – the land of celebrity chefs, smartphone restaurant reviews and a Whole Foods in every neighborhood – is seriously having a debate about whether we can afford to feed our own people?
The average SNAP benefit comes to about $1.50 per person per meal. That will decline to $1.40 per meal in FY 2014, when SNAP benefits decline across the board (cutting about $400 a year from the food budget of a family of four). No one is living high on the hog off Food Stamps, despite what some moronic surfer dude might have told Fox News.
Nearly half of SNAP participants are children. Thirty percent of SNAP households in 2011 had earnings, and 41 percent of all SNAP participants lived in a household with at least one wage earner. Only 8 percent of SNAP households received cash welfare benefits, while 42 percent received Social Security or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits given to the aged and disabled. When we talk about SNAP recipients, we’re talking about children, the elderly, the disabled and the working poor, not “welfare queens” or surfers.
The $4 billion a year in savings Republicans are touting from their cuts amount to about 0.615% of the $650 billion federal budget deficit for the current fiscal year. So this isn’t about fiscal responsibility. These cuts won’t make a dent in the deficit.
This also isn’t about trying to stem a surge in SNAP outlays since the beginning of the 2008 recession. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projects that as the nation’s economic recovery continues, SNAP caseloads will fall and costs will return to their 1995 level as a share of GDP by 2019.
Nor are the cuts about giving recipients an incentive to work, as proponents claim. Republicans are demanding that adult SNAP recipients work or attend job training. But there are three unemployed people for every job opening in the American economy right now, and the legislation neither requires states to provide job training nor provides any additional funding for them to do so. The arithmetic just doesn’t work. The bill would even allow states to cut off SNAP benefits entirely to families with children as young as 1 year old if parents are not working or participating in a job training program for at least 20 hours a week.
What this is about is Republicans fucking with the poor. Remember those troglodytes in the audience at the Republican primary debates who cheered the prospect of letting an uninsured man die for want of health care? This is for those folks, the ones who consider “empathy” a dirty word. I guess it saves them the trouble of wandering the streets and looking for homeless people to taunt.
Talk about “optics.” Hell, the political cartoons practically draw themselves. In one panel, an obese politician feasts with K Street lobbyists on the sumptuous fare at a beltway brasserie. In the next panel, the same pol knocks a piece of bread out of the hands of a street urchin, muttering “get a job, kid.”
Think I’m being unfair? In what other developed country could the members of a mainstream political party vote to literally take food out of the mouths of the country’s poorest, most vulnerable citizens and celebrate the act as a political victory? Words like “heartless,” “soulless” and “mean” just don’t seem adequate here.
Ah, but a couple of the greedy bastards who did this deed think they have come up with an apt adjective: “Christian.” Huh? In response to criticism from Democrats, Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) and Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-TN) both quoted 2 Thessalonians 3:10: “For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.”
Of course, the Apostle Paul was not denigrating Christian charity in his epistle to early church members. He was talking about devotees who believed their savior’s return was imminent and thus saw no need to support themselves. Paul’s admonition was intended as a theological polemic, not a slam against the “idle” poor.
Fincher and Cramer were hardly original in their cynical reliance on Thessalonians for political ends. Lenin did the same thing nearly a century ago when he paraphrased Paul in 1917’s The State and Revolution: “He who does not work shall not eat.” Stalin liked the phrase (actually intended as a dig at bourgeois Russians rather than the poor) so much that he incorporated it into the 1936 Soviet Constitution. What’s that they say about politics and strange bedfellows?
Fincher and Cramer are not against all welfare, mind you, only welfare for people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to eat. Cramer’s North Dakota House district received $10.4 billion in agricultural subsidies from the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 2005 to 2012, more than any other district. Fincher’s own farm has received $3,483,824 in subsidies since 1999, $70,574 last year alone.
Do I sound a little bitter? Damn right I am. This is personal for me.
I grew up in a single-parent household, and for much of my childhood my mother and I relied on Food Stamps to make ends meet. This was long before the advent of EBT cards, and I still remember the disapproving looks from other shoppers and my own shame when we would pay for our groceries with Food Stamps. I also remember suppers from a package of ramen or a can of pork and beans and sometimes skipping meals altogether at the end of a month.
I desperately hoped to hide that part of my life from other kids at school, and I still recall my humiliation when a classmate busted me in the checkout line at a supermarket, paying with Food Stamps. In America, being poor doesn’t just mean going without. It means giving up some of your dignity. The reality of poverty in this country doesn’t mesh well with the myth that hard work and clean living guarantee one at least a middle class living. So we blame the poor for their poverty and stigmatize those whom we deign to help.
I’m not poor any more. Through a combination of education, work, luck and second chances, I managed to claw my way into the middle class and a reasonably comfortable living. I am not rich by any measure, but I do well enough that I now pay more annually in taxes than the average American worker earns in a year. I’ve never done the math, but I’m pretty sure that the money taxpayers invested in me when I was growing up has produced a pretty decent return for the U.S. Treasury. It hasn’t always been easy, but I’ve been happy to pay every dime.
Now that I’m no longer part of Mitt Romney’s “47 percent,” I would much rather see my tax dollars go to feeding the hungry and lifting Americans out of poverty than into the pockets of hypocritical windbags such as Reps. Fincher or Cramer.
As for Bible quotes, I’m not a Christian. But I have read the Bible, and I seem to recall something in the Good Book about loving your neighbor, taking care of the least among us, and feeding the multitude. And while I’ll admit it’s been a while, I can’t, for the life of me, remember the part where Jesus walked up to a hungry man or woman and muttered, “get a job.”