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Congress' Farm Bill Readies to Kick Poor Off Food Assistance
Despite billions in subsidies to giant agricultural operations, some of nation's neediest about to lose
If the House GOP gets its way, the new Farm Bill passing through Congress will prove the perfect opportunity to make some of the nation's most poor and vulnerable even less secure.
At stake, funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (called SNAP), which provides access to staple foods for millions of families living beneath or skirting the poverty line.
"For millions of Americans, that monthly food allowance is an unsavory reminder of the consequences of social disinvestment: no matter how hard you work, at the end of the day, you’ll still be hungry."
–Michelle Chen, In These Times
And as Paul Krugman describes in his Friday column, readers who understand what is happening in the bill should not just be shocked or cynical about the Republican's latest attempt to "shrink" then "effectively kill" a key social program, they "should be very, very angry."
The shrinking part comes from the latest farm bill released by the House Agriculture Committee (for historical reasons, the food stamp program is administered by the Agriculture Department). That bill would push about two million people off the program. You should bear in mind, by the way, that one effect of the sequester has been to pose a serious threat to a different but related program that provides nutritional aid to millions of pregnant mothers, infants, and children. Ensuring that the next generation grows up nutritionally deprived — now that’s what I call forward thinking.
And why must food stamps be cut? We can’t afford it, say politicians like Representative Stephen Fincher, a Republican of Tennessee, who backed his position with biblical quotations — and who also, it turns out, has personally received millions in farm subsidies over the years.
These cuts are, however, just the beginning of the assault on food stamps. Remember, Representative Paul Ryan’s budget is still the official G.O.P. position on fiscal policy, and that budget calls for converting food stamps into a block grant program with sharply reduced spending. If this proposal had been in effect when the Great Recession struck, the food stamp program could not have expanded the way it did, which would have meant vastly more hardship, including a lot of outright hunger, for millions of Americans, and for children in particular.
Also addressing the assault on SNAP in a recent column, Michelle Chen lashed out at the GOP, saying conservative lawmakers are going a step further from their well-known “starve the beast” strategy "by trying to starve actual people."
And what's worse, explains Chen, is that the GOP rationale is a refusal of the realities that have caused the recent increase in food stamp assistance. She writes:
Ever since 2009, conservatives have been railing against the rapid expansion of the SNAP program as if it was a policy choice by Obama. (Recall Newt Gingrich’s endless invocations of the “food stamp president” during the 2012 GOP primary.)
But food stamp usage increased as a natural function of the steep recession, which created a lot more people who were eligible for the program. (In fact, Republican counties are responsible for most of the food stamp growth.) Republican demands to enact deep SNAP cuts, while crudely punitive to the millions of low-income Americans who depend on food stamps, are also unnecessary.
As economists repeatedly point out, food assistance programs like SNAP actually have a stimulative effect on the economy. As Krugman explains, "estimates from the consulting firm Moody’s Analytics suggest that each dollar spent on food stamps in a depressed economy raises G.D.P. by about $1.70 — which means, by the way, that much of the money laid out to help families in need actually comes right back to the government in the form of higher revenue."
And it gets worse. As The Nation's George Zornick recently reported:
[Cutting poverty assistance is] absurdly out of sync with economic realities of the working poor. (They’re also heaped on top of a current cut to food stamps due to the expiration of a temporary boost from the federal stimulus package.) Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) estimatesthat over one-sixth of the population faces hardship in securing an adequate food supply--with appalling rates of food insecurity among black and Latino households. And among those who can afford to keep their pantries stocked, many are still too poor to afford healthy, fresh food. Food stamps just dent that gap in food security, with monthly payments averaging a luxurious $280 per household.
For all the eagerness in Congress to shrink food stamps, the program’s problem is not that it helps too many, but that it reaches too few, as Monica Potts has reported. About one in four people who qualify for some reason do not receive benefits, according to federal estimates, perhaps due to stigma or bureaucratic barriers in the application process. Many immigrant families are also excluded due to their legal status.
And Chen's argues that the debate around SNAP provides a perfect symbol of the overall debate surrounding the nation's economy and ongoing budget negotiations.
"That millions of people can’t afford to eat is not a cause for alarm for politicians so much as a burdensome line item," writes Chen. And continues:
Erasing public benefits make it easier to make the poor invisible in the public mind. After all, food stamps symbolize not only the failure of “free markets” but the power of social policy to reduce endemic human suffering. For millions of Americans, that monthly food allowance is an unsavory reminder of the consequences of social disinvestment: no matter how hard you work, at the end of the day, you’ll still be hungry.
And for those lucky enough not yet starved of their political will, as Krugman urges, perhaps it's time to get "very, very angry" about the nature and substance of this lousy debate.