The Republicans' War on the Poor

The GOP is pushing to decimate food-stamp programs, punishing the most vulnerable just out of sheer spite

Nation Affairs, RS 1195, The Gop's War
Illustration by Victor Juhasz
Republicans are pushing to decimate food-stamp programs.
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The way the program to provide the poor with the bare minimum of daily nutrition has been handled is a metaphor for how the far right in the House is systematically trying to take down the federal government. The Tea Party radicals and those who either fear or cultivate them are now subjecting the food-stamp program to the same kind of assault they have unleashed on other settled policies and understandings that have been in place for decades. Breaking all manner of precedents on a series of highly partisan votes, with the Republicans barely prevailing, the House in September slashed the food-stamp program by a whopping $39 billion and imposed harsh new requirements for getting on, or staying on, the program. The point was to deny the benefit to millions.

The Sharp, Sudden Decline of America's Middle Class

Hardly any other federal undertaking – with the exception of the Affordable Care Act – has attracted more hostility from the far right than the food-stamp program. As recently as the mid-Sixties, actual hunger and starvation existed in this country on a significant scale, particularly in the Deep South and Appalachia. In 1967, Robert F. Kennedy took a widely covered trip to the Mississippi Delta, where he was quite evidently shocked at the sight of listless babies with distended bellies who were unresponsive to his touching them or trying to get them to laugh. That same year, a group of doctors took a foundation-sponsored trip to Mississippi and reported, "In child after child we saw: evidence of vitamin and mineral deficiencies; serious untreated skin infestation and ulcerations; eye and ear diseases, also unattended bone diseases secondary to poor food intake; the prevalence of bacterial and parasitic diseases. . . ."

In the years after these devastating revelations, two farm-state senators of different philosophies on many issues – South Dakota Democrat George McGovern and Kansas Republican Bob Dole – joined together to strengthen the program and extend it to more people in need. Over in the House, Thomas Foley, a Democratic congressman from Spokane, Washington – a major wheat­growing area – and later House speaker, was the real legislative hero of the program.

Even before he became chairman of the Agricultural Committee in 1975, Foley had the insight that the way to politically protect food stamps – both in his fairly conservative committee and on the House floor – was to combine the program with agricultural subsidies in the farm bill that came up for renewal every five years or so. The idea was classic if benignly intended log-rolling: Members from urban areas, where unemployment and the need for food stamps is relatively high, would grudgingly vote for the farm bill, while representatives from parts of the country with agricultural interests would grudgingly vote for food stamps. There was a certain substantive as well as political logic in linking nutrition support to farm surpluses – it helped unload excess commodities, while at the same time it could help feed the poor. Grocers also supported the food stamps as a way of selling more goods. (One of the program's greatest fans today is Walmart, which has the distinction of having customers and employees on food stamps.)

In 1979, 12 years after the original report calling attention to the appalling hunger in the Deep South and Appalachia, the Field Foundation sent another medical team to roughly the same areas, and it found that despite no sizable improvement in the condition of poverty, there had been a dramatic reduction in hunger and malnutrition as a result of food stamps and other nutrition assistance. The data shows that while a significant number of nonelderly households left the program as their income improved, the group whose participation had increased the most was the working poor.

"Food stamps are largely responsible for the near-elimination of the severe hunger and malnutrition that was widespread in many poverty-stricken areas," says Bob Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and a bearded, Old Testament-like figure who ran the program during the last two years of the Carter administration and is passionate about it. "Were it not for this program, we would see a lot more chronically hungry people and more illness related to malnutrition and undernutrition."

Food stamps are far from an extravagant benefit. The average allocation is $1.40 per person per meal. (Try it some time.) A few years ago, the program was renamed SNAP, for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, to give it a more positive facade, but that headed off not a whit of anger at the notion that hordes of freeloaders were getting benefits they didn't deserve or were electing to become dependent on food stamps rather than get a job.

In 1996, when Congress revised the separate welfare law, it also placed severe new restrictions on food stamps. Able-bodied adults who weren't raising children were limited to receiving food stamps for only three months out of three years if they weren't working at least 20 hours a week or participating in a job-training program. This grim rule applied no matter how hard they tried to find a job and even if they hadn't been able to get a slot in a training program. An exception could be made if they lived in an area of high unemployment and if their governor requested and received a federal waiver. The average income of these people is about $2,500 a year, or 22 percent of the poverty level.

How the GOP Became the Party of the Rich

The job-training program that's part of the food-stamp law is modest, nowhere near the needed capacity, and other job-training programs the government offers are full, with waiting lists in many areas. But Republicans have resisted significant increases in training programs – if this hurts the economy or large numbers of individuals, so be it. First things first: Undermine Obama's presidency.

In 2009, desperately trying to revive the economy from the crash and understanding that money for food stamps is money quickly spent, Obama proposed that the stimulus bill raise food-stamp benefits for all recipients. These increases were scheduled to die at the end of October. Thus the support level for it had been dropping significantly, despite the fact that the economy hasn't recovered to the extent that had been expected.

Republican Extremism and the Lessons of History

The House's deep slash to the food-stamp program, combined with outlandish restrictions, arose from various impulses. There was, obviously, the long-standing animus within the Republican Party toward poor people, and that's been substantially intensified as a result of the transformation of the party, whose center of gravity has moved south and west. Moreover, a minority of the party in the House, backed by powerful and wealthy outside interest groups, has seized the reins by throwing terror into the ranks that if they don't conform to the Tea Party's agenda, they could face defeat in a primary challenge from the right in the next election. Bob Dole's and George McGovern's time is long gone. Neither the Senate, nor the House, nor American politics are anything like they were in their time. The Republican Party in the Senate contains no Jacob Javits, the late New York senator who fought to protect food stamps. Among the Democrats, there's no Edward Kennedy to champion the causes of the poor, to even enjoy doing battle for them. One of the few unabashed liberals, Tom Harkin of Iowa, is retiring after five terms. Harkin was born into modest means, which he has never forgotten – he needed no lectures about bootstraps.

Adding to the ferocity of the attack on food stamps this year is that Tea Party members had promised that when they got to Washington, they would dramatically cut the size of government, but had little to show for it. Paul Ryan's much-touted budget was actually quite cautious in cutting entitlements in the near term. Medicare and Social Security were too popular, even among the Tea Party's own followers, for Republicans to stick their necks out on those issues. Medicaid is a component of the health-care-reform law, and therefore was being dealt with in another context. That left food stamps.

The idea that the unworthy are cadging off the federal government – at a cost to the right-thinking taxpayers (who, of course, never, ever cheat) – goes deep in our national psyche. Ronald Reagan's frequent evocation of the "welfare queen" driving around in a Cadillac and the "strapping young bucks" said to be dining on T-bone steaks purchased with food stamps touched a racist nerve that is more prevalent in this country than we care to admit.

Through this rhetoric, Reagan helped build the Republican Party's base in the South – with consequences that have lasted to this day. Newt Gingrich, it may be recalled, made a big issue of food stamps in his race for the 2012 Republican nomination, calling Obama the "food-stamp president." But despite Gingrich implying that lazy blacks were the personification of food-stamp recipients, only 22 percent of those who receive food stamps are black (33 percent are white). Of the roughly 47 million Americans on food stamps, nearly half are children.

Policy by anecdote continued into this year's food-stamp debate. This summer, Fox News triumphantly presented an unemployed 29-year-old man from La Jolla, California, named Jason Greenslate, who liked to surf and play in a rock band, and who defiantly posed for the cameras buying lobster and sushi with the food stamps he got from the government. Fox then reportedly distributed the story to House members, and at least one member admitted that it influenced him to vote for a proposal to decimate the food-stamp program.

Until the House took it up this year, the food-stamp program had mostly enjoyed bipartisan support from Capitol Hill. Of all the commissions, committees and ad hoc groups formed in the past few years to propose ways to cut the budget – the sainted (if overrated) Simpson­Bowles, Domenici­Rivlin, the "Gang of Six" – not one of them suggested cutting food stamps.

What's more, the hue and cry about widespread food-stamp "fraud" is belied by the facts. The Agriculture Department reported earlier this year that only 2.8 percent of all food-stamp benefits had been provided to people who were ineligible or had received a larger payment than they should have – and it said that the majority of the overpayments had been the result of inadvertent mistakes by caseworkers or recipients. As for the widespread view that food-stamp recipients are selling food stamps for cash, the department reports that such trafficking involves only one percent of benefits.

The fact that the size of the food-stamp program had more than doubled from nearly $38 billion in 2008 to $82 billion this year of course fed suspicions that there was a tremendous number of new cheaters, or that Obama had loosened the rules for getting on the program. Politicians who made such charges overlooked the fairly obvious fact that beginning in 2008 this country suffered the greatest recession since the Depression. A study published in August by the prestigious National Bureau of Economic Research found that most of that increase was attributable to the recession.

None of this got in the way of legislators who lived by homilies about self-reliance when the House took up the issue of reauthorizing the farm bill in June, amid many warnings that the bill was on shaky ground. The Agriculture Committee, which, like so much else in Washington, had been caught up in the House's drift to the right, cut the food-stamp program by $20.5 billion over 10 years. The ranking Democrat, Collin Peterson from Minnesota, cautioned the Republican leadership that this large cut endangered Democratic support for the farm bill and warned that if amendments favored by the extreme right were adopted on the House floor, the whole thing might go down. But Cantor, he of the Southern drawl, icy smile and dagger poised at John Boehner's back, had his own agenda.

Despite these warnings, when the bill came to the House floor, Cantor promoted an amendment sponsored by Rep. Steve Southerland, a Tea Party member from Florida, that imposed harsh and unrealistic new conditions, euphemistically called "work requirements," for receiving food-stamp benefits. Southerland isn't a member of the Agriculture Committee, so this was an end run by Cantor and Southerland around its chairman and Republican membership.

Nevertheless, the Republican leadership was stunned and stung when the farm bill was voted down by the House on June 20th by 234 to 195. Only 24 Democrats supported it and 62 Republicans voted against it – most of them on the grounds that the cuts weren't deep enough. The bill was essentially a victim of the crossfire between the Democrats who thought the food-stamp cuts were too harsh and the Republicans who thought the program hadn't been cut enough.

Cantor, in a bit of a bind, now had to find a way to extricate the leadership from their embarrassment over losing the farm bill. He had two choices: Drop the Southerland amendment, moderate the committee's food-stamp cuts and pass the farm bill with the support of the traditional bipartisan coalition – or appease the far right by splitting the bill into two, which many conservatives had sought. Conservatives were never comfortable with their farm subsidies being polluted by its coexistence with food stamps, and they failed to understand that this had helped their favored agricultural subsidies survive. This would of course make the food-stamp program more vulnerable. Despite the strenuous objections of Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, who, by the strength of his office, would ordinarily be treated with some deference by the leadership, Cantor decided to split the bill. Both bills would have to be passed overwhelmingly – or entirely – with Republican votes. The bipartisan accommodation of more than 40 years was now shelved.

With agricultural interests clamoring for a farm bill to be enacted by the end of September, when the existing program was set to expire, a second one, now consisting of agricultural matters only, was brought up in the House on July 11th, and it was narrowly passed by a vote of 216 to 208. All the Democrats who voted opposed the bill, and they were joined by 12 Republicans.

But Cantor still had to decide what to do with the newly separate food-stamp bill. After a few weeks of quiet meetings with members from both of his party's factions, he threw in with the forces on the right. He awarded the Tea Party radicals a trophy by imposing another $19 billion in cuts to the food-stamp program – on top of the $20.5 billion the Agriculture Committee had already approved.

The GOP's Real Agenda

But his most spectacular and dangerous move was to urge the inclusion of the Southerland amendment. Among other things, this amendment gave hard-strapped states a financial incentive to throw people off the food-stamp program by allowing them to pocket half the federal funds that would have been spent on food stamps and use them any way they wished. This preposterous bribery proposal goes back to atavistic divisions that had bedeviled the food-stamp program in the House from the beginning. (All along, it was more popular in the Senate.) Back in the Sixties, the program was designed to be paid for entirely by federal funds after a huge fight erupted between food stamps' early backers and the Republican-allied "Boll Weevils" from cotton-growing Southern states who wanted states to provide matching funds – which would have been a convenient way to kill the program.

This remarkably mean-spirited food-stamp bill, brought up on September 19th, was passed by a vote of 217 to 210 – even narrower and more partisan than the vote on the farm bill. Every Democrat who voted opposed the Southerland amendment, and they were joined by 15 Republicans, most from districts in the North that weren't safe Republican seats.

Inside the Republican Suicide Machine

The amendment raised an obscure second-term member from Panama City, Florida, a conservative area in the Panhandle, to sudden prominence. But there's strong evidence that Southerland was the instrument of others – in particular, Cantor. Cantor, along with Paul Ryan and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, was a co-founder of the "Young Guns," formed for the 2008 election to search out promising conservative candidates – among them Southerland – and groom them for election. Those who won, and many did in 2010, were expected, according to the Young Guns website, to "play a vital role in keeping our Republican team on offense and help build a lasting and productive Republican majority for the American people."

Southerland has received contributions from Koch Industries and Cantor's Every Republican Is Crucial PAC, which contributed more than $2 million to congressional candidates, most of them highly conservative. Like many Tea Party members, Southerland had no political experience before he ran for the House in 2010, defeating a long-serving conservative Democrat. A prosperous inheritor of a family funeral­home business – his estimated worth in 2010 was nearly $3 million – Southerland is given to homilies about the virtue of hard work and self-reliance. A few days after the food-stamp bill passed, he told a group of unemployed people at a job-training center in Washington, D.C., "I believe work is the greatest gift that you will receive."

The amendment with Southerland's name on it had actually been written by a mysterious and highly conservative organization of 17 state secretaries of human services and workforce agencies called the Secretary's Innovation Group, or SIG, that appeared out of nowhere a couple of years ago and started issuing policy papers and testifying before congressional committees. The thrust of their work reflected the arch-conservative views of Jason Turner, the group's executive director, who had published his own policy papers. In February of this year, Turner testified before the House Ways and Means Committee, where he presented what was to become the Southerland amendment. Southerland was so excited about these ideas that Cantor made him the public face of these schemes for throwing more people off food-stamp rolls and making them inaccessible to many, many others who would otherwise qualify.

As is typical of the groups on the far right that have sprung up or gained new prominence in the past few years, SIG has connections with the conservative Heritage Foundation, where Turner is a visiting fellow. Heritage is run by Jim DeMint, the former South Carolina senator who had managed to annoy many of his Republican colleagues by promoting Tea Party candidates for the Senate (and in the process blowing opportunities for the Republicans to take several seats) before resigning his own seat to take leadership of Heritage earlier this year. Not exactly of a scholarly bent, DeMint has steered Heritage in a far more political direction than before: He was a mentor to Ted Cruz as Cruz conducted his bootless effort to force the defunding of Obamacare, by threatening to shut down the government. Heritage is funded by (unsurprisingly) the Koch brothers and some of the nation's largest corporations, among them defense contractors Boeing and Lockheed-Martin, insurance companies such as Allstate, and drug manufacturers like GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer Inc.

So-called reform groups like SIG use anodyne language that masks their true intent: For example, SIG's stated goal in regard to food stamps is "promoting employment and self-sufficiency for able-bodied, working-age recipients." Who's to argue against that? The problem was its proposals have nothing to do with helping the unemployed find jobs. In connection with its most unusual bribery system, it allowed states to deny or terminate an entire family's food-stamp benefits if a parent wasn't employed or enlisted in a job-training program – even if there weren't any jobs or training programs in the vicinity. It forbade waivers, thus closing the trap on the able-bodied unemployed in areas where jobs are scarce.

In sum, the House-passed food-stamp bill would throw 3.8 million low-income Americans off the food-stamp program in 2014, while reducing benefits to many others. In a statement he issued at the time, Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, ripped into the Republicans for their misleading portrayal of their "reforms" by adding "work requirements." On the contrary, he said, "These provisions would end food-stamp assistance for large numbers of people who want to work, are looking for jobs and will take a workfare or job-training placement, but who cannot find a job in a weak labor market."

Where does all this leave not just the food-stamp program but also the country? Both have been the subject, or the victim, of narrow-gauged fanatics who observe no boundaries and in their recklessness have left a lot of wreckage in their wake. The Senate has passed a unified farm bill containing the food-stamp program. The bill cuts $4 billion from the program by addressing a widely recognized, unintended loophole in the way benefits are paid out. House-Senate negotiations are to occur, and Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow says that the issue won't be over the difference between the figures of $4 billion and $39 billion, but over the policies that produced those figures. She had no intention of meeting the House halfway or accepting its extremist policies. The bribery provision, she says, leaves her speechless.

Even Before the Shutdown, House Republicans Couldn't Get Anything Done

Whatever happens in the short term, the longer-term question is whether the damage done to many areas of governance and policy that reflect long-standing American values and the delicate balances that have kept American democracy going can ever be repaired.

This story is from the November 7th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1195: November 7, 2013