The Republicans' War on the Poor

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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.

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