At the risk of being labeled a Tea Party toady or right-leaning deviationist, I have to ask if the severing of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) from the Farm Bill by the Republican House Majority isn’t an opportunity worth taking advantage of. And in the same breath, I have to ask if the lockstep resistance to that move and piling on of liberal vituperation isn’t yet more evidence that the left-leaning social policy machine is running on empty.
Federal spending on the food stamp program has been pushing north of $70 billion a year. It has been justifiably credited with keeping many people’s heads above water during the Great Recession while modestly stimulating local economies. Representing some 70 percent of the current Farm Bill – the rest being divvied up between the much reviled agricultural commodity programs and the much beloved conservation and sustainable farming programs – food stamp support has allegedly relied on an unholy alliance of sorts between Big Agriculture and anti-hunger advocates. “I’ll support billions in agricultural subsidies if you support tens of billions in SNAP benefits. That way we can eat our food stamps and high fructose corn syrup too!”
By tearing asunder that which unlikely partners hath joined together, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor put a lot of federal spending in play for the government downsizing Neanderthals. As Emerson once noted, “There is always a certain meanness in the argument of conservatives”, and what can be meaner than taking food away from hungry children? Though doing marginally little to pull the current 50 million food stamp recipients out of poverty, the program is one of the few tools that government has to mitigate it worst effects.
That being said, one can’t help but ask if we didn’t see this dramatic House action coming. After all, food stamps have been under siege for years, even before their association with President Reagan’s nefarious welfare queen remark. Getting their start in a somewhat different form during the Great Depression (not Recession), and codified in its present form as the first executive order of President Kennedy, food stamps and the food benefits they bestow reflect two sides of the American character. Being as compassionate as any people, we simply don’t have the heart to let anyone starve to death. But being up-by-the-bootstraps individualists, Americans generally blame the poor for being poor and don’t trust them to spend the taxpayer’s largesse wisely. Hence food stamps can only be spent on food, and not any other of life’s necessities.
But even then the hapless food stamp user must run a gauntlet of consumer scorn. The smug conservative shopper will ask aloud why “those people” are buying filet mignon with their food stamps, while righteous foodies ask why “they” are allowed to buy Coca-Cola, Twinkies, and host of other highly disparaged processed food products.
Being a food stamp recipient isn’t for sissies. Not only do you wear a bull’s eye on your back for every cost-cutting politician to take aim at, your purchases are relentlessly scrutinized and the subject of a never ending public critique. You endure derision from every quarter all for the princely sum of about $5 a day.
Whether we have more food stamp spending or less begs the question of why such a major act of social policy that nobody, including the recipients, seems to like, continues unreformed and unevaluated. With a national poverty rate locked at 15 percent and a near-poverty rate bringing the combined numbers to well over 30 percent, food stamps provide some relief but no solutions. With overweight and obesity affecting 65 percent of the population and eclipsing hunger as America’s number one diet-related health problem, food stamps do little to encourage healthy eating and less to discourage unhealthy eating. And with high unemployment, low wage jobs, and few prospects for growth – other than big box stores and casinos – leaving the economy stuck in neutral, food stamps $70 billion in federally generated buying power helps Kraft Foods (food stamps are 1/6 of its sales), but nearly nothing to infuse local economies with new energy.
But the anti-hunger orthodoxy that SNAP is a vital part of the nation’s safety net and must never be altered goes unchallenged. Whenever an innovation is proposed, e.g. Mayor Bloomberg’s request to prohibit the use of food stamps to purchase sugary soft drinks, the program’s pit bull defenders bare their teeth threatening to rip the limbs off heretics who might modify even one of SNAP’s holy sacraments. It may be that they are in bed with Wal-Mart and others who have tragically dumbed-down American wages and whose workers are subsidized by the food stamp program, or it may be that they are riveted to the notion that they are all that stand between a modicum of food sufficiency and mass starvation. Either way, the tenaciousness of their enterprise, which opposes food stamp change at any cost, is only matched by an equally fervent brand of conservatism embodied by the Tea Party. The result: A program now more than 50 years old remains largely unchanged even though the nation that it helps feed has changed in myriad ways.
Imagine a corporation or major private institution that did not conduct research and development, kept the same product line for generations, and never engaged in strategic thinking. That enterprise would be out of business (or subsidized by the federal government). While a nation’s social policy is albeit more complicated and subject to a host of conflicting winds, it cannot go unexamined by those who genuinely care about people and their communities. Anti-hunger advocates will say that any meaningful examination of the food stamp program opens a Pandora’s Box that allows Tea Party-ites to wield their machetes, but that process is underway already; better to get out front with new ideas and positive energy.
Both history and biology amply demonstrate that change is inevitable, and that those who resist the need to adapt and reinvent in the face of new exigencies are eventually subject to denigration, decay, and decomposition. While we cannot realistically count on the Republicans (though I think exceptions do exist) to enthusiastically embrace a food stamp reformation that places poverty reduction, nutritional health, and sustainable agriculture above basic caloric intake, we might expect more from food stamps’ stalwart defenders as well as progressive forces within the food movement.
The time to re-think food stamps is upon us. If the best and most compassionate don’t do it, if we don’t find a way to build a model 21st century social program around the bones of an aging 20th century program, food stamps will become nothing more than carrion for circling vultures.
Mark, while I appreciate your basic sentiment about guiding historical change, I would expect someone with your deep background in policy-making to appreciate how naive it is to call for deep reforms of a program under sustained attack at its most politically vulnerable moment.
Your argument that SNAP supporters should play along with conservatives bent on changing basic program mechanisms pretends that these debates are legitimately about making SNAP better. They are not. Calls by conservatives for SNAP “reform” at the state and federal level (and they are nearly all made at first by conservatives, including soda restrictions) are just proxy conversations, a politically safe way for these legislators to vent their hatred of social welfare programs. Their intent is never to make SNAP work better, it is to score political points and contribute to the false public impression that SNAP “isn’t working.” Intentions matter in policy-making, yet those who wish to reform SNAP purchasing and other aspects of the program have largely turned a blind eye to their political helpers.
Finally, I find it ironic that you start your essay with the assumption that you will be tarred as a “Tea Party toady,” then proceed to compare anti-hunger advocates to this same group. Policy debates this complex and important are not helped by slandering your opponents or questioning their motives. Just because we disagree with you does not make us “pit bulls” or corporate shills. Like you, we are simply fighting for what we believe is right.
Thanks for breaking things down like this Mark. A blueprint for food security that’s sustainable and cruelty-free should be a national priority. Your work and that of local others to help communities redefine food policy is commendable and so desperately needed. I’m with you. Donna
Great Article, and considering I just may be the Tea Party member you speak of, I am also a compassionate Christian environmentalist Farmer that lives amongst the poor. By govt standards, I am the poor. I have been seeking the root cause of the demise of farms and rise poverty when I see an abundance of land around me, all corn and beans headed for China via Purdue. My analysis of the root of the issue, is the rise of the USDA and FDA regulatory war on small producers and on-farm processing. The big evil corporations control the government regulatory agencies. The board members of Feeding America run the Grocery Manufacturers Assoc who control the FDA. The FDA keeps regulations up soo high with HACCCP rules and others that I cannot even grow a Pumpkin and turn it into Pumpkin Pie pie to sell to my neighbor at Thanksgiving~ FDA deems it as a Potentially Hazardous Food, the pumpkin pie manufacturers assoc saw to that and it is only there to keep their profits protected and the small farmer’s denied.
My solution to the issue is the Farm Freedom Act and the Food Freedom Act. Farm freedom has 20 words “Farmers shall have the right to process and sell what they have grown on their own land without licensure or inspection” We need that for small producers to survive and bring an abundance of clean food about.
The Food Freedom Act is for urban/ suburban small home and farm producers who can buy from the farmers and process and sell unencumbered by inappropriate govt regs. as long as the food is labeled with the producers name, address, ingredients and the disclosure it was not govt inspected.
Both can be seen on http://www.virginiafoodfreedom.org
I hope you all may support these peices of legislation. Something needs to change and I think it must come from the bottom up, with the people and freedom to choose their nutrient dense foods from their own neighbors and farmers, and create independent jobs.
Thank you Mr. Winne for educating so many about the Food System injustices. You have made great headway in VA and have definitely touched the TeaParty–they are learning about the Farm Subsidies that start the circle of poverty and environmental degradation.
Intriguing and well put. I look forward to hearing about your ideas for replacing SNAP. A significant increase to the earned income tax credit and massive investment in job-producing high rise and ground level urban agriculture would be important components.