America, Land of the Free to Go Hungry

The GOP's Ryan plan caricature of food stamps as a welfare entitlement out of control will tug the safety net from millions

As unfortunate as our current age of austerity is claimed to be, legislators at both the federal and state levels seem to relish the opportunity it has provided them to dismantle the last vestiges of the social safety net. If the economic crisis taught us anything, after all, it is that there is too much government regulation on Wall Street, and too many government safeguards for those most in need, right?

With the latest set of proposals, "belt tightening" will have a very literal meaning for millions of Americans as Republicans in Congress have now proposed cutting and radically restructuring the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (Snap) - the program more commonly known as food stamps - despite record numbers of people presently on the rolls. Without question, these cuts and changes would prove devastating for many of those to whom food stamps represent a last line of defence against hunger.

Food stamps were first instituted in 1939 at the tail end of the Great Depression, but were discontinued in 1943. It was more than two decades later that the program was established on a permanent basis with the Food Stamp Act of 1964 - as a part of President Lyndon B Johnson's "Great Society". Since then, it has undergone some changes but remains essentially intact.

And it is a good thing it has.

In March 2011, a record 44.5 million Americans received food stamps, which was an 11.1% increase over the year before. Even more illustrative of the profound impact the economic recession has had on poor and working-class Americans is the fact that this represents a 64% increase over the number of recipients in March 2008.

Faced with this evidence of increased need, on 31 May, the House appropriations committee nevertheless approved the fiscal year 2012 agricultural appropriations bill, which includes $71bn for Snap - $2bn less than President Obama's recommendation. On 16 June, the bill was just barely approved with a 217-203 vote in the House.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin Republican and House budget committee chairman Paul Ryan's "Path to Prosperity" budget proposes deep cuts to Snap, and even more fundamental changes to how it is administered:

"[P]rograms that subsidize food and housing for low-income Americans remain dysfunctional, and their explosive growth is threatening the overall strength of the safety net."

His plan would turn Snap into a block grant program in 2015 (along with Medicare, starting 2013), meaning the funds would be delivered to the individual states with only loose stipulations about how they are to be used. The belief is that this improves flexibility and promotes innovation and creativity in the delivery of federal funds. But coupled with Republicans' intention to slash Snap by 20% over the next ten years - or $127bn, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities calculates - Ryan's plan could leave millions in danger of going hungry.

While Ryan has not made clear the specifics of how the cuts would be instituted, Dottie Rosenbaum of the CBPP speculates that they would most likely come in two areas: a change in eligibility requirements and an across-the-board cut in the benefits available. Additionally, she argues, block-granting Snap would render it "unable to respond automatically to increased need resulting from rising poverty and unemployment during an economic downturn" and would also give individual states the option of placing their own restrictions on the program. Finally, Rosenbaum responds to Ryan's claim that Snap has undergone "relentless and unsustainable growth" by pointing out that "[t]he recent growth in the number of people participating in Snap closely tracks the increases in poverty associated with the recent recession."

A fuller appreciation of the potentially disastrous effects of these cuts is gained by examining their possible impact at the local level. "Nobody really wants to see what it will look like if they block-grant Snap, because it's going to be ugly," says Carey Morgan, the executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. Her organization screens 6,000-7,000 Philadelphia-area households per year for eligibility for food stamps, of which about 70% qualify. Then, they assist families with the application process and provide them with case work services for dealing with what can be a complex bureaucracy.

Morgan, who recognizes the structural roots of poverty and its inherent relationship to hunger, notes that Ryan's plan would hit Philadelphia particularly hard:

"When we see the rates of poverty being 27%, which is what it is in Philadelphia, of course you're going to have high rates of hunger."

Moreover, the costs of cutting food could have attendant effects in other areas. She adds:

"If you can't eat, you're going to get sicker and you're going to be sick more often, and those medical costs will go up. Food is a great preventative tool."

It seems like common sense, but apparently, not to Ryan and his ilk.

One enduring legacy of the Reagan administration has been the extent to which it greased the ideological rails for the continued destruction of the welfare state - long after he had his crack at it by perpetuating lurid fantasies about the purportedly pathological (largely urban and black or hispanic) poor. Who could forget Reagan's most notorious and nefarious tall tale? That of the "welfare queen":

"She has 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 social security cards and is collecting veteran's benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting social security on her cards. She's got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000."

This and similar anecdotes have framed the rightwing discourse about poverty for the past 35 years. If the poor are a fundamentally defective, lazy and criminal underclass, the logic goes, what good can government aid possibly do?

But nothing could be further from the truth, which is obvious if one just talks with some of the people who rely on these benefits. For instance, Tamika Finn is a 34-year-old, recently-unemployed single mother from West Philadelphia. She cares for her mother and son - both of whom are disabled - while she completes an associates degree in information technology. "I'm grateful to have food stamps," she says. But, she maintains, "the goal is always to get off and do something different - do something better." Dispelling the notion that recipients wish to remain on food stamps indefinitely, Morgan points out that "99% of the people we talk to are not proud of getting the benefit and are not looking to scam the system."

The assault on the welfare state has hardly been the work of Republicans alone. Lest we forget, it was Bill Clinton who signed Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 into law, keeping his promise to "end welfare as we know it". Among many other things, this act made significant cuts to Snap. Incidentally, it was also Bill Clinton who, in 1999, repealed the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, which prevented speculation by banks. This move is now believed to have contributed to the current economic crisis.

Indeed, the logic of slashing the social safety net fits cozily with an upwardly redistributive program of tax cuts and deregulation. And, of course, this is the path we have been on for the last 30 years. Morgan sums up bankruptcy of this trend nicely: "Our priorities are completely messed up if we are cutting food, which is a basic right to the most vulnerable populations we have." As the oft-repeated maxim goes, the true test of a society is how it treats its weakest members.

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