Conservative quest to gut food stamps ignores widespread hunger
Mindlessly cutting these benefits without regard for the human cost is stupid, cruel, and reprehensible.


Volunteers serve people during a free dinner service at the Emergency Assistance Program at the Chicago Catholic Charities in Chicago, November 1, 2013.

This weekend, my friend Rainey Foster will be honored at the annual dinner of So Others May Eat, one of a number of terrific organizations in Washington that feed the hungry. It is an auspicious time for SOME to hold its dinner, because the number of people using its services is growing in this sluggish economy, and it will grow even more as the food-stamp program, known as SNAP, is cut further.

How much further, we do not know, as the farm-bill conference inches toward a possible resolution after a three-year-plus deadlock that may set the gold standard for dysfunction in governance. What we do know is that the farm-bill deadlock, which dragged on through the worst drought since the Great Depression, has been largely due to the insistence of House Republicans on cutting the food-stamp budget by $40 billion over 10 years on top of the $5 billion that has already been trimmed.

I was struck by a column by Katy Waldman in Slate personalizing the impact of the existing cuts, via a conversation with Debra, a single mother in Washington. Debra’s food-stamp allotment has been reduced from $203 a month to $130. Here is what she said about the situation before the cut.

“It’s me and my daughter at home. She’s 21. It was bad enough before the cuts: We were eating lunch meat all week, and we only had enough for a can of vegetables a day. Divide $203 by 30 days, and then by three meals, and then halve it for each person. It’s not a lot. And now it’s going to be much worse. I don’t know if we can still do the canned vegetables every day. One thing we won’t do anymore is have three-course meals on weekends. We used to buy a dinner on Saturday and Sunday that would have three courses: a vegetable, a starch, and a meat. But meat is going to be a huge problem. It’s expensive for anyone. I don’t know what we’ll eat for the weekends anymore. Hopefully not lunch meats again.”

I’ll do the math for you. At $203 a month, that is $1.13 per meal for each person every day; at $130 a month, it is 72 cents per meal. Not much room there for a venti latte at Starbucks, huh? Debra does rely on food banks like SOME (she uses Martha’s Table and Bread for the City, two other wonderful D.C. organizations). But these groups are struggling as well. They do not get as much surplus food as they used to. Biofuels have helped drive up food prices, reducing those surpluses.

Forty-seven million people are now on food stamps. I am sure that there are cheaters and those who game the system; many conservatives point to the California surfer eating lobster on food stamps, the classic “welfare queen” case. But the overwhelming majority are living on incomes below the poverty line. Five percent of all American families run out of money for food before the month is out, including a large number of working people.

The argument made on the House floor by Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., when he killed the last attempt at bipartisan agreement on a farm bill was that the program encourages a culture of dependency and discourages people from working. It is true that for Debra and others like her, getting a minimum-wage job would probably leave them with less than they get now. But it is also true that most food-stamp recipients, including most of those added in the past five years as a result of the Great Recession, want to work and simply can’t find jobs. Talk to anybody at a food bank, and they will tell you of seeing people come by for food who used to contribute to them. They don’t want to take—they want to give—but find themselves, through no fault of their own, in dire straits. But what made Cantor’s argument so hollow was that he wanted to tie food-stamp eligibility to job training—without providing a dime for job-training programs, which have also been cut back.

I am happy that Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is quietly focusing on poverty and seeking conservative solutions; similarly, other conservatives such as the American Enterprise Institute’s Arthur Brooks believe in the essential role of a government safety net but want to find ways to reduce the culture of entitlement. I would love for all sides to find common ground here: Provide the kind of job training that will enable people to find work and move out of poverty while helping them with the basics of food, shelter, health care, and transportation. But to cut, slash, and burn that aid mindlessly without regard for the human cost is stupid, cruel, and reprehensible.

One last thing: As the holiday season approaches, don’t forget SOME, Martha’s Table, Bread for the City, the Capital Area Food Bank, the Central Union Mission, Feeding America, Share Our Strength, and other wonderful groups around the country that step in where government is stepping out.

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About the Author


Norman J.
  • Norman Ornstein is a long-time observer of Congress and politics. He is a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal and The Atlantic and is an election eve analyst for BBC News. He served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also served as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Mr. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future (AEI Press, 2000); The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann (Oxford University Press, 2006, named by the Washington Post one of the best books of 2006 and called by The Economist "a classic"); and, most recently, the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann, published in May 2012 by Basic Books. It was named as one of 2012's best books on pollitics by The New Yorker and one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post.
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