Cruel Cuts

GOP Aims to Cut $40 Billion Out of Food Stamps to Foil Illusory ‘Cheaters’

Still bewitched by myths of ‘welfare queens,’ the GOP will try once again to gut the food stamp program.

Ryan McVay/Getty,Ryan McVay

Between 2007 and 2008, the recession caused millions of Americans fell into what the Agriculture Department calls "food insecurity." The economy has taken huge strides since then, but—according to a report released yesterday by the Agriculture Department—"food insecurity" remains stubbornly high. In 2008, insecurity jumped from 11 percent to 14.6 percent; as of last year, it's 14.5 percent.

This, and the stimulus, is why we've seen considerable growth in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—otherwise known as food stamps. In 2012, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington think tank, the program helped more than 47 million Americans—up from roughly 30 million in 2008—at a cost of $81 billion, with average monthly benefits that ranged from $153 (for a household of one) to $782 (for households of seven). And the vast majority of beneficiaries are people who need the help: children, low-income workers, and households with seniors or people with disabilities.

The economy is still sluggish, unemployment is still high, and struggling families still need these benefits. Despite this, House Republicans are poised to make huge cuts to the program when it returns from recess next month, helped along by a conservative movement that wants to gut the program and end "dependency."

This isn't a new push. In June, Republicans offered a farm bill that would have cut SNAP by $20.5 billion over 10 years, while giving tens of billions of dollars in subsidies to powerful agricultural interests. For conservatives, a 25 percent reduction in benefits wasn't enough, and with the help of liberal Democrats, they killed the bill. Instead they passed a package of subsidies for farm interests, nearly $200 billion worth, while leaving food stamps for later.

The "later" is here, and it's atrocious. Backed by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor—who, earlier this year, said he would pursue a "shared vision of creating the conditions for health, happiness, and prosperity"—the new food-stamp proposal doubles cuts, reducing SNAP benefits by $40 billion over the next 10 years. What's more, it would increase work requirements and end waivers that allow "able-bodied adults without dependents" to receive benefits.

In the conservative telling, there's an orgy of food stamp waste and abuse. "Newscasts tell stories of young surfers who aren't working but cash their food stamps in for lobster," read an alert sent from the office of House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy last week. The "newscast" in question was a Fox News special—aired last month and later distributed to members of the House—called "The Great Food Stamp Binge." Hosted by Bret Baier, it featured Jason Greenslate, a young California man who chooses not to work and uses his benefits to buy sushi and lobster. In the world of Fox News, however, Greenslate is typical—a lazy, entitled "taker" who deserves to lose his benefits.

If all this sounds familiar, it's because it fits with longstanding stories about "welfare queens" and others who—in the right-wing narrative—live lives of luxury on government benefits. "Because he does pay income tax, he doesn’t get back more than he pays in, he is actually helping pay for king crab legs when he can’t pay for them for himself," said Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert this summer, expressing his sympathy for constituents who claimed to see food-stamp abuse in their grocery stores. Writing for the Huffington Post, Arthur Delaney detailed the long history of these claims, which—curiously—always seem to feature steaks and crab legs. "The crab complaint," he writes, "has recurred more than a dozen times in newspapers around the country."

Either low-income people have an unusual taste for expensive seafood, or this is an apocryphal story, passed around by those paranoid that someone—somewhere—is getting something they don't "deserve."

In the real world, Jason Greenslates are few and far between; the vast majority of SNAP recipients are children, seniors, or people relying on the program while looking for work. And while there's no way to know what the benefits are spent on, we do know that recipients are genuinely disadvantaged; to be eligible for SNAP, households must have a gross income at or below 130 percent of the poverty line, a net income of less than or equal to the poverty line, and less than $2,000 in assets ($3,250, if the household includes an elderly or disabled member). If you see someone with an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card in the grocery store, odds are good that you're looking at that person’s last resort. Indeed, if implemented, the GOP's $40 billion cut would push 4 million to 6 million low-income people from the rolls, including millions of unemployed parents who can't find work. For an ostensibly pro-family party, it's a profoundly anti-family measure.

Which gets to the most frustrating thing about this debate. Reasonable people can disagree about what's needed to improve the prospects of low-income Americans. Conservatives who worry about the growth of social programs and are skeptical of new entitlements—like the Affordable Care Act—aren't therefore opposed to the interests of poor people. But SNAP doesn't exist to promote mobility. It's there to provide a nutritional floor for the millions of Americans who suffer when our economy takes a turn for the worst. It doesn't make sense to cut them, and if you do, you should have something to keep your fellow citizens from falling through cracks.

Republicans don't. The GOP economic plan, insofar that it exists, calls for austerity budgets, deep tax cuts, and tight monetary policy. Full employment—which is hardly a priority for Democrats—is nowhere on the GOP agenda.

Obviously, with a divided Congress and a Democratic president, there's no chance these food-stamp cuts will become law. Nonetheless, it's an amazing statement of the GOP's priorities. For the Republican Party, the social safety net must go. And if the cost is millions of hungry Americans? Tough luck.