If you are hearing it said that SNAP benefits must be cut; to address rampant waste, fraud and abuse - a classic chapter in this tale - be aware that in fact, the federal food stamp program, maintained in the US since the Depression, proves decade after decade to be a model of integrity and efficiency, operating with about a 3% level of waste and fraud, almost unheard of for a program this size. While it's a cinch to sound credible accusing a government program of being rife with abuse and fraud, if they were asked (come on, Democrats!), Republicans would be unable to prove anything of the kind about SNAP.
"We want to work with our Democratic colleagues in Congress to implememnt reforms in the SNAP program to cut back on waste, fraud, and abuse."
- Rep. Steve King, (R), Iowa
"We want to ensure that truly vulnerable families receive the support they need in a more efficient and effective manner."
- Rep. Steve Southerland, (R) FL
This Republican tale-telling does a disservice to the general public, but also to hard right conservatives with real philosophical objections to an economic model that uses tax revenue for social spending. Why aren't they asking to be heard right now, too? Where are the voices of those who want a safety net, but want it realized by components of the free market that include charity and philanthropy; those who believe that hunger, even on the scale it exists in this country today, could be addressed effectively with for-profit ventures that don't involve government contracts? Ideas driven by authentic concerns, with solutions more creative than “just cut it so bad people can’t use it,” would at least encourage a more substantive dialogue.
"Why does the safety net need reform? Because people are getting tangled up and stuck in it. The House addresses this by ending benefits for individuals that, quite honestly, don't qualify for them."
- Rep. Randy Neugebauer, (R) TX
"Asking people to work in return for food stamps is not any kind of cruel and unusual punishment. The dignity of work has been a pretty common theme throughout all the ages."
- Rep. Mike Conaway, (R) TX
My own feelings about the latter economic philosophy are obvious, but I’d sure rather have an argument in those honest terms than one relying on specious claims of fraud, cheap phraseology about who is or isn’t deserving; or, worst of all, more muck from the Myth of the Moocher Class. Republican House members are espousing and exploiting a fear of the moocher that is only barely still acceptable among their constituency, and not at all among its representatives. It’s based on lingering stereotypes that sprang from gut provincialism, festering in a time before comprehensive information about class norms was widely accessible. When leaders with the resources of the modern day member of Congress internalize and articulate those fears, at televised hearings, in tones utterly dripping with frankness and reason, as though they have no way of knowing otherwise, it is hard to forgive.
Even before we had a chance to study and answer such questions, some could see it was an unrealistic concern. Nutrition assistance in the US is a bare-bones benefit. There are purchasing restrictions, and the allowances are modest. There is social stigma associated with using food stamps. These benefits don't provide people with anything they want out of life, except survival. There's nothing enjoyable about making so little money you qualify for food stamps.
But because this question has been a fundamental concern for some, and does have huge policy implications, it has been rigorously studied and explored. These questions have always been asked, and there are now decades of research to answer them. There is no evidence that negative societal outcomes, or the degradation of character, can be associated with food assistance. In fact, there is plenty of evidence to show otherwise. Such information is easy enough for the layperson to find. Members of the US Congress cannot be excused for ignoring the literature - wide-ranging and multi-disciplinary – addressing these fears. Let them at least put up applicable research and shoot it down. Let them explain why their fears are unabated. But they can’t pretend it is legitimate to wonder - in the face of more than half a century of accumulated knowledge in behavioral and social psychology – if maaaybe receiving free supplemental nutrition coupons is so intrinsically rewarding that eventually, long-suffering productive citizens will be unable to lure legions of their fellow Americans away from the seductions of poverty.
Finally, if you hear it said that a 5% reduction in benefits isn’t all that painful, truly consider the source. A favorite chapter in the fairy-tale is about how easy it is to live on so little. If we want to know about the impact of cuts, there are plenty of reliable sources. Perhaps we should be hearing testimony from program administrators trained to do needs-assessments and impact studies. Or from case managers who work directly with needy families. But sure, sometimes anecdotal evidence can help us understand how policy decisions may be felt by those affected. Just make sure you are hearing less from those who want to experiment and speculate on the impact of a 5% funding adjustment, and more from those who will open their own cabinets to see 5% less food.
"Food stamps have played and will continue to play an important role in taking care of out most needy Americans. But the program exists to help lift up those who have hit bottom, not keep them there."
- Rep. Martha Roby, (R) AL
It came back in waves yesterday, thinking about the food stamp cuts as I shopped. When I went to check out, I saw that there were small signs posted at each register informing or reminding shoppers with SNAP cards that their benefit reductions were effective immediately. The sign explained that cashiers would be glad to check the balance on their cards. My heart sank realizing there were lots of moms and dads and others who would arrive at the register to see this just after completing the exhausting experience I described. Because I wasn’t unique - when every item you pull off the shelf or pass up has repercussions for your own hunger or that of your dependents, whether young, elderly or disabled; groceries become more than boxes and cans of food. There really is both a physical and emotional impact.
So they will get to the front of the store after the selecting, subtracting, second-guessing, and strategizing, to realize that regardless of how well they'd done, they went over by 5%. To use the figure the Associated Press is reporting as an example, that’s a reduction of about $36 dollars for a family of four. That means taking back out of the cart $36 worth of fruit, beans, cereal, meat, and juice. Kids, perhaps, in tow. This is not a fairy-tale.
As the nation debates food stamp funding, let's keep it honest. The program works. It does what it sets out to do. It helps poor people get basic food they can't otherwise afford. The program has low overhead, and measurable positive outcomes. If you think there is a better way to get food into empty tummies, lay out your plan. If you think doing so is not an appropriate function of government, make your case. But don't just sit and spin a scary yarn, or sit silent while others in your party do so. We don’t need the fairy-tale; the true story is harrowing enough.