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.
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.
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.
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