Food Stamps: The Safety Net That Deserves Its Name
Given the program’s popularity, to say nothing of its strengths as an anti-poverty program and recession-buster, one could be forgiven for assuming that food stamps are enjoying widespread government support right now: that Congress would be debating funding increases, not cuts, and that the administration would be working hard to bolster and even boost one of its more effective stimulus initiatives.
In recent months, the nation’s food stamp program has come under increasing pressure—from the reverse Robin Hoods who have taken aim at the government and the Democratic leaders who quake before them.
House Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan of Wisconsin was the first to empty his quiver with his Path to Prosperity plan in April, in which he recommended garlanding the rich with yet more tax cuts while carving $127 billion (or almost 20 percent) from the food stamp program over the next ten years, imposing time limits on benefits and converting the system into block grants. Echoing the arguments used to attack welfare fifteen years earlier, Ryan warned against transforming the safety net into a “hammock that lulls able-bodied citizens into lives of complacency and dependency.” If passed, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities cautioned, the Ryan plan would have thrown “millions of low-income families off the rolls, cut benefits by thousands of dollars a year, or some combination of the two.”
Ryan’s proposal, and the House budget that grew out of it, were defeated, but not without winning the support of almost every Republican in the House. And now there’s the sudden surge of Republican presidential front-runner Newt Gingrich, which can only portend ill for food stamps. Gingrich has been lobbing anti-SNAP bombs for months, but his most infamous, issued in May and repeated in December, was his slam calling Obama the “food stamp president”—a declaration of barely coded racism that harked back to decades of racially inspired attacks on food stamps, most notably Reagan’s slur about “strapping young bucks” dining out on T-bone steaks. Equally troubling, Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican with a record of racebaiting, led a charge in the Senate this past fall to “reform” food stamps by restricting eligibility and undoing a planned $9 billion budget increase, supposedly to crack down on fraud and government excess. (Notably, food stamp errors have reached record lows in recent years: only 2.7 percent of program costs in 2009, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported.)
The deep racism at the heart of conservative food stamp critiques offers at least one clue as to why the Obama administration has been unable or unwilling to champion SNAP as a valuable recession antidote: as the nation’s first African-American president, Obama is vulnerable to racist innuendo, which his opponents are only too happy to exploit. Just two months after Gingrich made his “food stamp president” comment, another would-be president, Rick Santorum, picked up the theme, accusing Obama, absurdly, of “pushing more people on food stamps.”
Moreover, and in fairness, it’s not easy to sell the positive side of skyrocketing food stamp enrollment. That food stamps have performed admirably during the recession, catching those in need and stimulating the economy, is small consolation when the economy continues to stagnate and unemployment hovers at just under 9 percent. Certainly we can agree that living-wage jobs would be far preferable to an economy so broken that 46 million people need food stamps.
And yet, none of this exactly explains the Obama administration’s failure to defend a clear policy success. And it certainly doesn’t explain why the administration along with Congressional Democrats bargained away some $14 billion in food stamp funding in 2010, hacking more from the program than George W. Bush ever did. Or why the Democrats on the Agriculture Committee agreed to recommend $4 billion worth of SNAP cuts to the mercifully failed “supercommittee.” Or why Democratic leaders like Dick Durbin, Charles Schumer and Patrick Leahy failed to sign on to a passionate letter by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand imploring the supercommittee to protect SNAP.
“Who are the liberal lions anymore?” one advocate laments.
Liberal lions do seem woefully scarce these days. More precisely, full-throated defenders of a common, socially contracted good seem woefully scarce. Obama does seem to have some kind of social contract vision, but it is based largely on compromise, on the social contract as process, not values. This is all well and good until you’re forced to go up against a pack of social Darwinists who have no values or belief in process. No wonder he’s had a hard time defending even the most basic, necessary and successful programs.
Then again, maybe the fight was never completely up to him. Maybe it’s been up to us all along.
When the Food Stamp Act was passed in 1977, making food stamps free and nationwide for the first time, it bore the distinct traces of the blood and sweat of the newborn anti-hunger movement. “Most of the nation’s leading antihunger groups were founded during a fourteen-year period starting in 1970,” writes Joel Berg in his book All You Can Eat: How Hungry Is America? “Not coincidentally, the nation’s greatest advances in reducing hunger came in the same decade.”
Many of the groups that helped fight for the Food Stamp Act still exist and are still fighting valiantly, but there hasn’t been much of a movement surrounding them in years. In fact, as progressives dived into the culture and terror wars and all but forgot the anti-poverty wars, there’s barely been the glimmer of a movement—until now. Until a ragged group of young, old, utopian, hard-luck, some-luck visionaries began occupying the country’s squares and minds with their calls for a society based on shared, mutual good rather than rogue individualism.
As the Occupiers plot their next moves, here’s one suggestion: occupy the safety net!
Also in This Forum
Betsy Reed: “Occupy the Safety Net” (Introduction)
Kate Kahan and George Wentworth: “Unemployment Insurance Under the Knife”
Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich: “The Making of the American 99 Percent”
Diana Spatz: “The End of Welfare as I Knew It”
Pedro Noguera: “Tearing the School Safety Net”
Patrick Markee: “The Unfathomable Cuts in Housing Aid”
Sasha Abramsky: “Medicaid in Crisis”
Kai Wright: “Hard Knocks in the Bronx”
Frances Fox Piven: “A Proud, Angry Poor”