Why Conservatives Are Wrong About Food Stamps

Opinion

  on June 27 2012 4:39 PM

Earlier this month, a new report by Feeding America found that 16 million children face hunger every day, especially if they live in rural areas. Last week, the U.S. Senate passed a massive half-trillion-dollar farm bill with rare bipartisan support that would provide more than 46 million Americans on food stamps with enough to eat. Now the bill goes to the House, where it is likely to face fierce opposition from conservatives. The reason? Food stamps are just another form of entitlement welfare.

Those administering the program seem determined to place the largest number of people possible on welfare support, said Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, whose amendment to tighten eligibility requirements was defeated. The omnibus bill passed 64-35 with most Democrats and 16 Republicans in favor. Is not a better goal to see how many Americans we can help achieve financial independence?

Let's ignore the magical thinking that is the idea that government can help people achieve financial independence by pushing them off the food-stamp rolls. The reason for the explosive growth in food stamps isn't fraud or a sense of entitlement, as conservative pundits have claimed. It's because people don't have enough money, and given the government's job forecasts, this is not a short-term trend. As for the belief, oft-repeated by conservatives, that the government plays no positive role in the lives of Americans, or their children, that's a canard. 

But first, let's look at the facts.

According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the number of food-stamp beneficiaries rose by 70 percent between 2007 and 2011. That growth was driven primarily by a weak economy. Most households on food stamps (75 percent) have children, seniors or disabled citizens. And most households (85 percent) have income that is below the poverty line ($23,050 for a family of four in 2012). 

More concerning is that demand for food stamps is almost certainly less than what it could be. According to the Social Security Administration's Average Wage Index, the median annual wage for 2010, the most recent year for which data is available, was more than $26,300. That means half of the nation's 150,398,796 wage earners made less. That means 75 million live under, on, or just above the poverty line.

And potential food-stamp demand is likely to remain high for the next 20 years, because of the projected growth in the so-called low-wage economy. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the top three job categories expected to grow most are office support (median wage $30,710), sales ($24,370) and food preparation ($18,770). Of the job types with the most growth potential, almost half pay $25,000 or less.

The survey by Feeding America, a nonprofit associated with 200 food banks nationwide, suggests that 16 million hungry kids is what happens when people can't earn enough money to feed themselves properly. It isn't an outlier. The National Center for Children in Poverty estimates that roughly the same number of kids (15.5 million) live below the poverty line. And a recent UNICEF report found the U.S. had the second highest rate of childhood poverty among the 35 rich nations surveyed.

It doesn't have to be this way. As the UNICEF study points out, poverty can be a result of bad politics and policy as often as bad economics. Sweden and Denmark have among the lowest rates of childhood poverty while Belgium and Germany have higher rates. Yet they all experienced the same economic shock waves of 2008. The difference is the Scandinavian countries have much bigger social safety nets.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, like many conservatives, believes welfare, in general, but food stamps, in particular, do more harm than good, because they do the work that workers should be doing themselves -- so food stamps are immoral. Is our national goal to place as many people on welfare, food stamp support, as we can possibly put on that program? Sessions said on the Senate floor last week. Is that a moral vision for the [U.S.], just to see how many people we can place in a situation where they're dependent on the federal government for their food?

Well, Americans would do the work themselves if they could find it, and if the work paid enough to buy enough food. But that's beside the point. Even Americans lucky enough not to need food stamps already depend on the federal government for their food. That's the point of farm bills. In fact, farm bills have done for decades what today's conservatives say the government has no business doing, and farm bills have historically done it with the full-throated blessing of Republicans and conservatives: commanding and controlling aspects of the economy. 

Renewed every five years, traditionally through a bipartisan effort, farm bills protect farmers from the realities of a free market, like disastrous weather, overproduction, price deflation, and other variables than can drive farmers out of business. Of course, when farmers go out of business, everyone suffers. So farm bills are, theoretically, good policy. 

To that end, the government has attempted to control fluctuating prices by paying farmers to produce less, to produce more, to let land lay fallow, etc. They have even engaged in what conservatives would surely call communist behavior by establishing various mechanisms to maintain the price of, say, sugar. The current bill does just that.

So when conservatives say the government plays no positive role in the lives of Americans, that's a canard -- a cop out. Government has, usually and rightly, chosen to step in when forces conspire to allow, say, 16 million kids to go hungry. It is a choice, and now that the farm bill is headed to the House, the choice is very clear. Conservatives there can choose ideology or they can choose to fully fund food stamps. Short of passing a massive jobs bill, that would be the only moral thing to do.

John Stoehr is a lecturer at Yale. His writing has appeared in the American Prospect, Reuters, the Guardian, Dissent and the Boston Review. He is the American political blogger for the New Statesman, a columnist for Mint Press News, and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English. Follow him on twitter @johnastoehr

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