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Food Stamp Cuts Reflect a Class War Against the Working Poor – posted 3/19/2017

March 19, 2017 Leave a comment

Senate Bill 7, a Republican-sponsored bill that would significantly reduce the number of people who can receive food stamps in New Hampshire, has passed the New Hampshire Senate on a party-line vote. Given the Republican majority in both Houses, it is expected the bill will pass and Governor Sununu will sign it.

The bill is mean-spirited, callous, and without any sense of compassion. I think it is likely to increase hunger and malnutrition in our state. The bill is expected to deprive 17,000 low-income families with children of food stamps. This is literally taking food from the mouths of poor children.

When these families lose their benefits, their food need will not stop. That is one thing that can be said with certainty.

When low-income people have food stamps, they can spend the money they do have on other basic needs like housing or utilities. Without food stamps, precious dollars have to go to food, leaving less for other essential expenses. With inadequate cash, the question becomes where does remaining money go: housing, utilities, medication, school expenses, clothes or child care? Where is the most compelling need, all things considered? It can be a Sophie’s choice.

Right now food stamps is probably the most important public benefit reaching masses of people in the United States. It is so short-sighted to cut this program. Food stamps is a bulwark against hunger, malnutrition and absolute destitution. By leaving available income for other needs, food stamps actually protect against utility shutoffs, evictions and homelessness.

Contrary to conservative fantasy world, great numbers of food stamp recipients are working but they are not making enough money to pay all basic expenses. Yet that does not stop some conservatives from calling food stamp recipients “welfare slaves”. You have to wonder what happened to the moral sense that no one should go hungry.

The program is not perfect and there is some fraud but it remains the most effective and targeted public benefit ever devised in the United States.

New Hampshire had opted for a slightly more generous income and assets test that allows more families to obtain food stamps but any generosity for low-income families is apparently too much.

Hunger and malnutrition aside, Senate Bill 7 is fiscally stupid, downshifting costs from the federal government to cities and towns. 100% of food stamp benefits are paid by federal funds. If people lose their federal benefits, they have the right to go to their home city or town for help and those cities and towns must assist under our local welfare law.

Of course, many probably will not go to local welfare for different reasons (including lack of awareness about the local welfare legal obligation) but if they do, the law mandates cities and towns to “relieve and maintain”. Food need falls squarely within the mandate of local welfare law.

Senate Bill 7 is a direct hit on the local taxpayer but the bill’s sponsors avoid that fact. They talk airily about promoting freedom – freedom from food, actually. They also talk about work requirements. They seem to forget that the Food Stamp program already incorporates work requirements.

There is unintentional irony in this bill. Republicans invoke Hew Hampshire values and state’s rights but this bill is anything but a New Hampshire bill. The bill is forcing the state to adopt a federal asset test. New Hampshire has long had a state waiver which gives the state more flexibility to respond to changing economic circumstances.

Readers of the Monitor may have seen the March 3 letter to the editor from Mary Anne Broshek of Andover. Broshek, who is a genuine expert on food stamps (she was in charge of eligibility at the Department of Health and Human Services for many years) certainly did not see Senate Bill 7 as a New Hampshire bill. She wrote that the bill prohibited state flexibility and sought to solve a problem that does not exist.

She also pointed out that the Republican bill sponsor, Sen. Avard, co-wrote the bill with a lobbyist representing a conservative group pushing similar measure in statehouses around the country. The lobbyist outfit, the Foundation for Government Accountability, is a right wing think tank based in Naples Florida. The bill template for Senate Bill 7 was lifted from a template on their web site with room for fill-in-the-blanks.

The Foundation for Government Accountability is a member of the State Policy Network, a coalition of groups that pressure for a hard right wing agenda in statehouses nationwide. It has close ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the billionaire-funded organization of Koch Brothers fame, dedicated to free market fundamentalism.

In her brilliant book of investigative reporting, Dark Money, Jane Mayer unmasks the role of many groups like the Foundation for Government Accountability. Over a period of the last 50 years or so, ultra right wing billionaires have created a powerful network of well-funded think tanks to protect the interests of the 1% and to push radical right wing policies and legislation. They are about overturning all the protections created for working people since the New Deal.

By any objective measure, the right wing has been extraordinarily successful in gaining control of statehouses across America. Republicans now dominate state governments. They control both chambers in 32 states, including 17 with veto-proof majorities. Democrats control the legislature in just 13 states. Only 5 of those chambers have veto-proof majorities. Republicans control the governor’s office in 33 states and Democrats control 16 with 1 state having an independent governor supported by the Democrats.

I would submit that the powerful network created by the billionaire class has had much to do with the Republican success. I do not think liberals and progressives appreciate the scope and depth of this network which has been deliberately hidden by the Kochs and their super-rich allies. Mayer, who writes for the New Yorker, lays it out in Dark Money. I think the book is required reading for Democrats and progressives. Democrats do not have anything that remotely matches up against this juggernaut.

We should not see Senate Bill 7 outside the context of a national effort to shred the safety net. The billionaires are making a concerted effort in all states to take away working class gains. Whether it is Steve Bannon talking about deconstructing the administrative state or Grover Norquist saying he wants to reduce the size of government to the size where it can drown in a bathtub, the vision is the same.

President Trump’s budget is a defining document of the ultra-right wing vision. It is a search and destroy mission for almost any federal program that helps low-income and working people. Whether it is Meals on Wheels, Legal Services Corporation, Corporation for National and Community Service (Americorps), School Breakfast and Lunch, Community Development Block Grants, U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, Weatherization, or Low Income Home Energy Assistance, Trump wants to zero them all out.

It is no exaggeration to say Trump’s budget is an act of class war where the billionaires bludgeon working people. Trump is spitting in the face of his working class supporters. He is showing himself to be the huckster and con man many suspected he would be. He fancies himself like Andrew Jackson but he is more like P.T. Barnum. Bills like Senate Bill 7 and the Trump budget are designed to drive millions more into extreme poverty and hopelessness.

When Senate Bill 7 was in front of the New Hampshire Senate, Republicans pushed an amendment that passed. Instead of affirmatively cutting 17,000 families off immediately, they gave the Joint Health and Human Services oversight committee the right to do it. Speaking on the senate floor, Senator Dan Feltes of Concord gave the perfect response:

“In the words of Ann Richards, ‘you can put lipstick on a pig and name it Monique it’s still a hog'”.

Senate Bill 7 is soulless and needlessly cruel. It flies in the face of what we know about increasing economic inequality and it will only make that inequality worse.

No Good Reason to Cut The Food Stamp Program – published in the Concord Monitor 7/6/2013

July 6, 2013 1 comment

Presently at issue before Congress is what will happen to the federal Food Stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP. Both branches of Congress have been addressing food stamps in the context of the Farm Bill.

On June 20, the House rejected a version of the Farm Bill that would have resulted in very significant cuts to the Food Stamp program. The House Agriculture Committee bill which came to the floor would have cut two million low income individuals off benefits entirely. Working families with children and senior citizens would have taken the major hit. Another 850,000 households would have had their benefits reduced by $90 a month. The total projected savings in food stamp cuts under the bill would be almost $21 billion over the next decade.

These cuts would follow on the heels of a further food stamp cut. The 2009 Recovery Act had increased household benefits to the tune of $20 to $25 a month or roughly $240 to $300 a year. That increase is slated to expire on November 1 unless Congress acts.

As of January 1, 2013, the Food Stamp program reached 120,000 New Hampshire residents which is 9% of the state population. Nationally, the Food Stamp program serves 47,772,000 participants, 15% of the total population in the United States. The average monthly food stamp benefit is $246 a month. Food Stamps pumped $166 million into the New Hampshire economy in 2012.

How the Food Stamp program is viewed is a rorschach test for politics. On the one hand, you have the Reagan-Gingrich-Romney view which sees food stamp recipients as takers, frauders, and welfare queens. On the other hand, you have people like former Senators George McGovern and Bob Dole who both championed the program and who saw it as a way to feed the needy.

I suppose how you see the Food Stamp program depends on whether you think hunger is a real problem in America.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says that over 50 million Americans lived in food insecure households in 2011. Food insecurity is defined as the condition of not having regular access to enough nutritious food for a healthy life. Of that 50 million, over 33 million are adults and over 16 million are children. USDA further estimates that about 17 million live in households considered to have very low food security. These are the food stamp recipients with the deepest struggles. These people regularly skip meals or cut the amount eaten below what is minimally needed.

I would argue that food stamps have been the most effective and targeted public benefit ever devised in the United States. The program has played a critical role in lessening hunger and malnutrition. A host of bad consequences can flow from childhood food insecurity including physical, emotional, and cognitive impairment.

In the world of public benefits, food stamps is the current program that is serving the widest number of needy people. Welfare no longer plays that role. Far fewer people get it. Food stamps is the big enchilada as far as benefit programs are concerned.

The logic of cutting the program now escapes me. The need is still there. The economy has only marginally improved. Pretending that need does not exist is a form of denial. If the economy does improve, less people will need the benefit and less people would be on the program. It is worth pointing out the countercyclical nature of food stamps. The program helps the economy since people typically spend their benefits quickly after receipt. They have to – otherwise they will be hungry.

Legislators who favor cutting the food stamp program do not talk about hunger. They try to keep discussion away from the impact on actual human beings. It is about deficit-cutting. You cannot get more abstract than that. How bloodless and how removed!

Talk about politicians who are so out of touch, it is like they live in a bottle. This is a perfect example. The food stamp cutters, a wealthy crowd, are oblivious to hunger, a condition that is, no doubt, quite foreign to them. The cutters offer no alternative for feeding the hungry. More likely, they would talk about fraud in the program or they will highlight a recipient somewhere who used food stamps to buy a lobster. The food stamp cutters are big on passing negative moral judgments on poor people.

The food stamp fraud discussion is one that should be welcomed by food stamp proponents. While no program is without some degree of fraud, the food stamp program has been very good at minimizing fraud and trafficking. The fact there is some small amount of fraud does not negate the need of the overwhelming majority who depend on the program. I would mention that the food stamp program in New Hampshire has been particularly vigilant about fraud and it has a good record in recovering overpayments not only from those who commit intentional program violations but also from those who commit inadvertent household errors.

Although food stamps was designed to be a nutritional supplement and not the sole basis for a monthly diet, it is the bulwark against poor people going hungry. For tons of people, who for whatever reason are lacking in income, food stamps may be the only source of nourishment.

A bunch of years back, I participated in the now defunct state Food Stamp Advisory Council. Made up of advocates, nutritionists, and representatives from the Department of Health and Human Services, we used to discuss the program’s functioning and ideas for improving it. One idea we had back then still resonates: using the Low Cost Food Plan rather than the Thrifty Food Plan for food stamps. The Thrifty Food Plan only gets most families 3/4 or 4/5 of the way through the month. The Low Cost Food Plan is a 25-30% higher allotment than the Thrifty Plan and it is based on a more realistic assessment of actual need. It is more in line with what low and moderate income people report they spend on food and it is more likely to provide the nutrition that will get recipients through the month.

I would suggest that food stamp cuts are not like other budget cuts. This is not like cutting a weapon system or even other social services. Before food stamps are cut, legislators should remember 16 million children potentially going hungry. In this, the richest country in the world, that is an entirely preventable situation.