Politics

10.26.13

The Republicans’ Food Stamp Fraud: It’s Not About Austerity

As conference committee talks begin, the GOP isn’t trying to cut $40 billion from SNAP just to save money. It wants to punish the poorest among us. By Michael Tomasky.

What’s the single worst thing the Obama-era Republicans have done? Tough one, I know.

But spare me a moment here—plus a thousand words down the page—and I think maybe you’ll agree with me that the single worst thing the Obama-era Republicans have done is try to push through a $40 billion cut to the food-stamps program. It’s just unspeakably cruel. They usually say publicly that it’s about saving money. But sometimes someone—one congressman in particular—lets slip the real reason: They want to punish poor people. The farm bill, which includes the food-stamp program, goes to conference committee next week. That’s where, the cliché has it, the two sides are supposed to “iron out their differences.” The only thing the Democrats on this committee should do with an iron is run it across the Republicans’ scowling faces.

The basic facts on the program. Its size fluctuates with the economy—when more people are working, the number of those on food stamps goes down. This, of course, isn’t one of those times. So right now the SNAP program, as it’s called, is serving nearly 48 million people in 23 million households. The average monthly individual benefit is $133, or about $4.50 a day. In 2011, 45 percent of recipients were children. Forty-one percent live in households where at least one person works. More than 900,000 are veterans. Large numbers are elderly or disabled or both.

It’s costing about $80 billion a year. Senate Democrats proposed a cut to the program. A small cut, but a cut all the same: $4 billion over 10 years. The Republicans in the House sought a cut of $20.5 billion over 10 years. But then the farm bill failed to pass. Remember that? When John Boehner didn’t have enough votes to pass his own bill?  After that debacle, the House took the farm bill and split it into two parts—the subsidies for the large growers of rice and cotton and so forth, and the food-stamp program. Two separate bills. And this time, Eric Cantor doubled the cut: $40 billion over 10 years. This number, if it became law, would boot 3.8 million people—presumably, nearly half of them children—off the program in 2014, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

These would come on top of cuts to the program that kick in Nov. 1. The 2009 stimulus bill included extra food-stamp money because unemployment was so high after the financial meltdown that legislators knew more people would be applying for SNAP assistance. So there was a “stimulus bump” in food-stamp spending, but that is now ending. A family of four would see a $46 cut each month.

The morality of this is so repulsively backward, the indecency so operatically and ostentatiously broadcast, I think it takes the gold going away.

The proposed GOP cut is such a piddling amount of money, in terms of the whole federal budget and especially when spread out over 10 years. But nearly half of it is quite literally taking food out of the mouths of children. What’s the point? The point really is that Tea Party Republicans think these people don’t deserve the help. That’s some fascinating logic. The economy melts down because of something a bunch of crooked bankers do. The people at the bottom quarter of the economy, who’ve been getting jobbed for 30 years anyway and who always suffer the most in a downturn, start getting laid off in huge numbers. They have children to feed. Probably with no small amount of shame, they go in and sign up for food stamps.

And what do they get? Lectures about being lazy. You may have seen the now-infamous video of Tennessee Congressman Steve Fincher, who told a crowd over the summer that “the Bible says ‘If you don’t work, you don’t eat.’” This while Fincher, a cotton farmer, has enjoyed $3.5 million in federal farm subsidies. This year’s House bill ends “direct payments” to farmers whether they grow any crops or not—except for one kind: cotton farmers.

Religious bloggers have noted that Fincher got his theology wrong and that the relevant passage, from Paul’s Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, wasn’t remotely about punishing people too lazy to work. It was about punishing people who’d stopped working because they thought Jesus was returning any day now. So: mean bastard, hypocrite, and Scripture-mangling idiot to boot. Nice trifecta.

The other argument one sometimes hears concerns the dreadful curse of food-stamp fraud. The actual rate of food-stamp fraud—people selling their coupons for cash—is 1.3 percent, but this of course doesn’t prevent the right from finding a couple of garish anecdotes and making it seem as if they’re the norm. Voter fraud, Medicaid fraud, food-stamp fraud…Somehow, in Republican America, only poor people and blacks commit fraud.

This cut is the fraud, because it’s not really about fraud or austerity. It’s entirely about punishing the alleged 47 percent. The bottom half or third of the alleged 47 percent. It’s absolutely appalling. These folks have done a lot of miserable things in the past four years. But this—the morality of this is so repulsively backward, the indecency so operatically and ostentatiously broadcast, I think it takes the gold going away.

The conference process starts next Wednesday and is going to take maybe a few months. Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow has taken the lead on this issue and has been terrific. Ditto Pat Leahy. Max Baucus, I’m told, is a good get to go a little wobbly (surprise). But this is one where the Democrats have to say this won’t stand. It’s one thing to shut down the government for two weeks and take quixotic stabs at Obamacare. Telling poor children that that fourth box of macaroni and cheese is excessive is something very different.