The Raid on Food Stamps

ON TUESDAY, President Obama signed a
$26 billion bill to help state and local governments cover Medicaid
payments and avoid having to lay off teachers and other public
employees. In what passes for high drama in Washington, the House of
Representatives was called back from its summer recess to vote on the
package, and the successful outcome was hailed as a major Democratic
victory. "We can't stand by and do nothing while pink slips are given to
the men and women who educate our children or keep our communities
safe,'' Obama said. "That doesn't make sense.''

it doesn't. But only by the occluded standards of contemporary
Washington could this aid package be considered a victory. What began
three months ago as a $50 billion emergency spending bill limped to the
president's desk at half that size and was largely paid for - "offset''
in the clinical terminology of the budget - by cutting $12 billion from
the food stamp program. In other words, a measure designed to help one
group struggling in the recession came at the expense of another that is
even worse off - and growing rapidly.

number of people receiving food stamps stands at a record 41 million,
or one out of every eight Americans. Driven by the downturn, that number
has risen every month for the past 18 months. Last year alone, it grew
by 20 percent. It's grown by 50 percent since the recession began.

stamp recipients are often demeaningly cast as being akin to welfare
queens - indolents on the public dole. But contrary to stereotype, half
of those who depend on food stamps are children, and many more are
elderly or disabled. The benefits are hardly generous: an average
recipient household receives $133 a month, or $4 a day. And recipients
are anything but indolent. Nearly half of households with children that
receive food stamps are ones in which a parent is employed, a number
that has grown steadily over the past two decades as real wages have
fallen. As Obama himself took to pointing out in the presidential
campaign, his own family required food stamps when he was a child.

"good news'' from an economic standpoint is that food stamps are a
terrific vehicle for stimulus, because recipients spend them quickly. A
2008 Moody's study found that the fastest way to infuse money into the
economy is by expanding the program. No surprise, then, that such an
expansion featured prominently in the 2009 stimulus package, which added
about $20 a month in temporary benefits.

why cut food stamps as the recovery is suddenly faltering? The short
answer is, because Republicans insisted on it. Not food stamps
specifically - that idea came from the White House, although no
Republican objected. But Republicans compelled the cuts by insisting
that any new spending measures, even on something as seemingly
unobjectionable as saving teachers' jobs, be "offset'' in the budget. A
grim necessity, they claimed, to prevent the deficit from killing the
recovery. But that's a political argument, not an economic one.

was a lousy offset,'' said Democratic Representative Jim McGovern of
Worcester, the co-chairman of the House Hunger Caucus. "We're robbing
Peter to pay Paul.''

justification offered by proponents was that food prices haven't risen
as much as Congress expected them to, and therefore cutting benefits to
hungry kids isn't really so bad, especially since the cuts won't take
effect until 2014. The trouble is, forecasts aren't very rosy. It is
projected that food stamp recipients will increase to 43.3 million next
year, and beyond that, who knows? "President Obama pledged to end
childhood hunger by 2015,'' McGovern pointed out. "It's hard to see how
you do that while you're cutting food stamps.''

with imminent layoffs, Democrats had little choice but to act, and that
meant cutting something. But the idea that they've won anything overall
is hard to sustain. They sacrificed the most effective form of stimulus
and capitulated to the Republican idea that deficits matter above all
else. Their decision about who should bear the brunt of the offsets, and
the silence that greeted it, suggests a moral capitulation as well. It
may be a victory. But it's nothing to brag about.

Joshua Green is senior editor of The Atlantic. His column appears regularly in the Globe.

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