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“Free To Be Hungry”: Conservatives Believe That Freedom Is Just Another Word For “Not Enough To Eat”

The word “freedom” looms large in modern conservative rhetoric. Lobbying groups are given names like FreedomWorks; health reform is denounced not just for its cost but as an assault on, yes, freedom. Oh, and remember when we were supposed to refer to pommes frites as “freedom fries”?

The right’s definition of freedom, however, isn’t one that, say, F.D.R. would recognize. In particular, the third of his famous Four Freedoms — freedom from want — seems to have been turned on its head. Conservatives seem, in particular, to believe that freedom’s just another word for not enough to eat.

Hence the war on food stamps, which House Republicans have just voted to cut sharply even while voting to increase farm subsidies.

In a way, you can see why the food stamp program — or, to use its proper name, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) — has become a target. Conservatives are deeply committed to the view that the size of government has exploded under President Obama but face the awkward fact that public employment is down sharply, while overall spending has been falling fast as a share of G.D.P. SNAP, however, really has grown a lot, with enrollment rising from 26 million Americans in 2007 to almost 48 million now.

Conservatives look at this and see what, to their great disappointment, they can’t find elsewhere in the data: runaway, explosive growth in a government program. The rest of us, however, see a safety-net program doing exactly what it’s supposed to do: help more people in a time of widespread economic distress.

The recent growth of SNAP has indeed been unusual, but then so have the times, in the worst possible way. The Great Recession of 2007-9 was the worst slump since the Great Depression, and the recovery that followed has been very weak. Multiple careful economic studies have shown that the economic downturn explains the great bulk of the increase in food stamp use. And while the economic news has been generally bad, one piece of good news is that food stamps have at least mitigated the hardship, keeping millions of Americans out of poverty.

Nor is that the program’s only benefit. The evidence is now overwhelming that spending cuts in a depressed economy deepen the slump, yet government spending has been falling anyway. SNAP, however, is one program that has been expanding, and as such it has indirectly helped save hundreds of thousands of jobs.

But, say the usual suspects, the recession ended in 2009. Why hasn’t recovery brought the SNAP rolls down? The answer is, while the recession did indeed officially end in 2009, what we’ve had since then is a recovery of, by and for a small number of people at the top of the income distribution, with none of the gains trickling down to the less fortunate. Adjusted for inflation, the income of the top 1 percent rose 31 percent from 2009 to 2012, but the real income of the bottom 40 percent actually fell 6 percent. Why should food stamp usage have gone down?

Still, is SNAP in general a good idea? Or is it, as Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, puts it, an example of turning the safety net into “a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency.”

One answer is, some hammock: last year, average food stamp benefits were $4.45 a day. Also, about those “able-bodied people”: almost two-thirds of SNAP beneficiaries are children, the elderly or the disabled, and most of the rest are adults with children.

Beyond that, however, you might think that ensuring adequate nutrition for children, which is a large part of what SNAP does, actually makes it less, not more likely that those children will be poor and need public assistance when they grow up. And that’s what the evidence shows. The economists Hilary Hoynes and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach have studied the impact of the food stamp program in the 1960s and 1970s, when it was gradually rolled out across the country. They found that children who received early assistance grew up, on average, to be healthier and more productive adults than those who didn’t — and they were also, it turns out, less likely to turn to the safety net for help.

SNAP, in short, is public policy at its best. It not only helps those in need; it helps them help themselves. And it has done yeoman work in the economic crisis, mitigating suffering and protecting jobs at a time when all too many policy makers seem determined to do the opposite. So it tells you something that conservatives have singled out this of all programs for special ire.

Even some conservative pundits worry that the war on food stamps, especially combined with the vote to increase farm subsidies, is bad for the G.O.P., because it makes Republicans look like meanspirited class warriors. Indeed it does. And that’s because they are.

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, September 22, 2013

September 24, 2013 Posted by | Poverty, Public Policy | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Taking Food Out Of The Mouths Of Babes”: Food Stamps Work, So Why Are We Cutting Them?

Can I tell you a real success story? One we should all be proud of? Great, here goes: The program formerly known as food stamps has kept hunger from exploding along with the number of Americans living in poverty.

“That food insecurity hasn’t increased” since the financial meltdown in 2008, said David Beckmann, president of the Christian anti-hunger group Bread for the World, “is a tremendous testament to the power of SNAP,” the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that replaced food stamps.

That does not mean that every child in this rich country of ours has enough to eat. On the contrary, Eli Saslow’s recent Post piece on a summer bread bus that takes lunch to kids in rural Tennessee was like something straight out of Angela’s Ashes. The 7-year-old who saves the juice from his fruit cup to feed to his baby sister reminded me of Frank McCourt and his classmates drooling for the apple peels their teacher tossed into the garbage in Limerick in the 1930s.

But government spending has kept the bottom from falling out: “What I see every day is how much food stamp programs mean to people on the edge,” said Monsignor John Enzler, president of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Washington. “I tried to live on what food stamps give you for a week last year and I couldn’t do it, but it does make enough of a difference to allow people to stay in their apartments, and pay medical expenses and take care of their children.”

In a still sluggish economy — and compared to the alternative — isn’t that an outcome we should count as a win? You’d think so. Yet on Thursday, the Republican-controlled House passed a farm bill without the nutrition programs normally funded through that legislation.

Why? Well, as Republicans themselves explained on the House floor, it’s because so many on their side of the aisle felt that the $20.5 billion in cuts to food programs in the version of the farm bill that failed last month just weren’t deep enough. “Oh my goodness,” Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas said some colleagues asked him, “why couldn’t you do more?”

Oh my goodness, why should poor kids get to eat free?

Funding such programs through the farm bill “doesn’t serve the needs” of the poor, insisted Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.), a fourth-generation farmer who called the bill that passed “the next logical step on the path to real reform.”

If you’re serious about cutting government, Lucas urged members, then vote for the bill. Some conservative groups, meanwhile, opposed it for not going far enough in that regard. (Remember when George W. Bush said he wouldn’t balance his budget on the backs of the poor? His party doesn’t seem to.)

Responding to poverty by paring back nutrition programs is like answering a rise in diabetes by slashing insulin production. And as Pete Gallego (D-Tex.) argued, almost all of the recipients are either children or elderly.

What’s to become of these nutrition programs now is unclear. But even the Democratic-controlled Senate wants to cut them, by $4 billion, and the White House has said it can live with that number. So the argument our leaders are having really boils down to whether we’re going to cut or gut programs that keep at-risk kids from going without.

Some opponents of the bill practically burst into flames on the House floor, where some of the loudest voices were female: “Mitt Romney was right,” thundered Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) “You all do not care about the 47 percent! Shame on you!”

“Vote no! Vote no! It’s ridiculous what you’re doing to our children!” said Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.)

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi wasn’t shouting, but was shaming: To pass the bill, she said, was “to dishonor the God who made us.”

“To take food out of the mouths of babies? What are you thinking?” she asked. “Or are you thinking?”

Female anger is a hot topic right now; I just finished Claire Messud’s not-nice novel “The Woman Upstairs,” about an elementary school teacher who life has turned into a human cauldron and “a ravenous wolf.” Even the Blessed Virgin is fuming in Colm Toibin’s “The Testament of Mary.” And if Democratic women on the House floor on Thursday were no slouches in tearing the roof off, well, sometimes fury is the only rational response.


By: Melinda Henneberger, She The People, The Washington Post, July 11, 2013

July 12, 2013 Posted by | Poverty | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“From The Mouths Of Babes”: The Ugly, Immoral, Destructive War Against Food Stamps

Like many observers, I usually read reports about political goings-on with a sort of weary cynicism. Every once in a while, however, politicians do something so wrong, substantively and morally, that cynicism just won’t cut it; it’s time to get really angry instead. So it is with the ugly, destructive war against food stamps.

The food stamp program — which these days actually uses debit cards, and is officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — tries to provide modest but crucial aid to families in need. And the evidence is crystal clear both that the overwhelming majority of food stamp recipients really need the help, and that the program is highly successful at reducing “food insecurity,” in which families go hungry at least some of the time.

Food stamps have played an especially useful — indeed, almost heroic — role in recent years. In fact, they have done triple duty.

First, as millions of workers lost their jobs through no fault of their own, many families turned to food stamps to help them get by — and while food aid is no substitute for a good job, it did significantly mitigate their misery. Food stamps were especially helpful to children who would otherwise be living in extreme poverty, defined as an income less than half the official poverty line.

But there’s more. Why is our economy depressed? Because many players in the economy slashed spending at the same time, while relatively few players were willing to spend more. And because the economy is not like an individual household — your spending is my income, my spending is your income — the result was a general fall in incomes and plunge in employment. We desperately needed (and still need) public policies to promote higher spending on a temporary basis — and the expansion of food stamps, which helps families living on the edge and let them spend more on other necessities, is just such a policy.

Indeed, 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.

Wait, we’re not done yet. Food stamps greatly reduce food insecurity among low-income children, which, in turn, greatly enhances their chances of doing well in school and growing up to be successful, productive adults. So food stamps are in a very real sense an investment in the nation’s future — an investment that in the long run almost surely reduces the budget deficit, because tomorrow’s adults will also be tomorrow’s taxpayers.

So what do Republicans want to do with this paragon of programs? First, shrink it; then, effectively kill it.

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.

Look, I understand the supposed rationale: We’re becoming a nation of takers, and doing stuff like feeding poor children and giving them adequate health care are just creating a culture of dependency — and that culture of dependency, not runaway bankers, somehow caused our economic crisis.

But I wonder whether even Republicans really believe that story — or at least are confident enough in their diagnosis to justify policies that more or less literally take food from the mouths of hungry children. As I said, there are times when cynicism just doesn’t cut it; this is a time to get really, really angry.


By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, May 30, 2013

June 3, 2013 Posted by | Poverty | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Why Do Republicans Hate Poor, Hungry People?

It’s almost as if Republicans are actively striving to get a reputation for being mean to poor, hungry people. On Tuesday, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the administration of Gov. Tom Corbett plans to start restricting eligibility to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as the food stamp program). Specifically, the state is imposing an “asset test” — anyone under 60 years old with savings of more than $2,000 is no longer eligible for assistance.

The news isn’t quite as bad as some outlets are spinning it. Pennsylvania’s proposed asset test conforms to federal guidelines for SNAP and doesn’t include the value of a recipient’s home, retirement savings or car. But what’s troubling is that the nationwide trend has been headed in exactly the opposite direction. Only 11 states currently impose asset tests for SNAP eligibility. Just four years ago, in fact, Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor, Ed Rendell, abolished the state’s asset test.

And with good reason, as we can readily learn from two new freshly updated informational fact sheets on SNAP coincidentally published on Tuesday by the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities.

SNAP serves as the bedrock of the federal safety net. Ninety-two percent of SNAP’s $78 billion budget goes to benefits that can only be used to buy food. Seventy-five percent of SNAP participants are families with children. There are already plenty of restrictions in place that ensure that SNAP benefits primarily go to people who are legitimately poor. According to CBPP, “93 percent of SNAP benefits go to households with incomes below the poverty line, and 55 percent goes to households with incomes below half of the poverty line (about $9,155 for a family of three).”

SNAP gets high marks for low levels of waste and fraud, kicks into action quickly and efficiently when the economy craters, and is rated by the Congressional Budget Office as one of the two most effective forms of federal stimulus. Perhaps best of all, the number of recipients usually declines just as quickly when the economy rebounds. According to a recent study by the USDA, in the mid-2000s, “More than half of all new entrants to SNAP in the mid-2000s participated for less than one year and then left the program when their immediate need had passed.”

As the U.S. economy continues to recover, SNAP outlays will surely decline. So why hurry it along? Could it be because conservatives think there’s something fundamentally wrong with providing nutritional support? Or is it the racial angle — the intersection of poverty and race that encourages people like Newt Gingrich to call  Obama “the food stamp president.”

The most charitable way to interpret Gingrich’s slur is as a critique of the president’s management of the economy: If he’d been a better president, fewer people would be eligible for assistance. But there’s also a deeper, darker level that connects the classic conservative antipathy to anything vaguely smelling of the nanny state. And the more one ponders that, the harder it is to fathom. The richest Americans skated through the Great Recession, while poor people lost their jobs and their homes and struggled to put food on the table. SNAP was there to help, to prevent the kind of pain and suffering that plagued American during the Great Depression, or that still afflicts citizens of less fortunate countries today. We should be thankful that Obama is the food stamp president; it’s a tribute to the progress inherent in becoming a civilized nation. We don’t let our citizens starve when Wall Street causes an international catastrophe. We should be proud of that.


By: Andrew Leonard, Salon, January 11, 2012

January 13, 2012 Posted by | Class Warfare, GOP | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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