Food Stamp Fight Looms

Food Stamp Fight Looms

Not for nothing is Newt going after the “food stamp president.” There’s a battle shaping up, but who will fight it?


Gingrich has always implied that programs for people in need are really just for lazy African-Americans. He’s done it again, all over the campaign trail, most spectacularly this week in South Carolina with his straw man du jour, the “best food-stamp president.”

The facts are clear—in 2010 less than one-quarter of food stamp recipients were African-American, and nearly 30 percent of recipients had earnings (just not enough earnings to put sufficient food on their families’ tables). But good luck with the fact fight. For four full years, from 1992 to 1996, the debate about welfare targeted poor black women, even though more of those receiving what was then called FDIC were white than black. So what! By the time the Senate passed its bill and Bill Clinton signed it into law, it was so acceptable to starve and impoverish women, especially black women, that even those editorial writers and columnists who opposed the “Personal Responsiblity Act” did it on other grounds (usually, that it might harm children).

Of course, the results were felt and continue to be felt by everyone. Timothy Casey, a senior staff attorney with Legal Momentum, a women’s rights group, told the Institute for Public Accuracy this week that the 96 Act reduced benefit receipt from 60 percent of poor families, pre-reform, to only about 20 percent of poor families today, and from more than 80 percent of eligible families, pre-reform, to less than 40 percent today. “Block granting cash aid also led to sharply reduced benefits that in every state are now less than half the poverty standard.”

The Republican plan for SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that used to be called “food stamps”) looks awfully similar. The GOP would turn the program over to the states just as it did with welfare, end the guaranteed benefit for low-income families and the automatic raises during economic down times, and (as with welfare) fund the whole thing through the block grants, which, of course, would obscure a big cuts.

The whole thing will be rammed through with a rhetorical war: the “food-stamp president” is the republic’s version of the Welfare Queen and likely to be just as potent. Lest we forget, as then Speaker Gingrich put it in his memo to GOP candidates in 1996, Language is a key mechanism of control.”

The more we repeat the straw man’s name, the more we recall the straw man.

The president and his administration have generally supported the program, but a battle is shaping up between Democrats and Republicans during the farm-bill debate. House Agriculture Committee chairman Frank Lucas, R-OK, a signer of Paul Ryan’s budget slashing plan, and House Agriculture Nutrition and Horticulture Subcommittee chairman Jean Schmidt, R-OH, have indicated they’re looking at tightening up eligibility for food stamps. As Lizzy Ratner has written here, the Obama administration has been unwilling to champion SNAP as a valuable recession antidote: “as the nation’s first African-American president, Obama is vulnerable to racist innuendo.”

One thing we learned from the welfare debate was that the most effective voices for the program were past and present welfare recipients. Which is why it was disappointing to see even an excellent effort—Tavis Smiley’s “Remaking America, from Poverty to Prosperity”—feature a panel of experts, none of them poor people. The NNU’s Donna Smith wrote about it eloquently at Common Dreams. Smiley’s panelists were good—you can see the show in reruns on public television and find out more at Smiley’s website. But really, over two and a half hours, no one? We can do better than that—and we need to.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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