Last month, as I peeled open an envelope from CalFresh – California’s food stamp program – I felt a little like Charlie Bucket hoping to find the golden ticket. I held my breath, hoping beyond hope that my new ZIP code in America’s “nanny state” might mean that the 15 years I spent balancing on an economic tightrope without a net were behind me.
“Effective 07/01/2015, your Food Stamp benefits are changed from $141.00 to $16.00 each month,” the letter said.
My knees buckled.
I had landed on food assistance in January after getting hit with an unexpected medical bill that equaled one-third of what was then my monthly income. My situation was so serious that San Diego County expedited my approval into the program, and I received my EBT card just four days after applying.
Then, in May, I managed to scrape together $1,200 in earnings, after my self-employment allowances – roughly double what I had made in previous months. When my six-month CalFresh check-in came around in June, the state apparently determined that this development meant I was now mostly OK.
It felt like the governor had appeared at my door, hat in hand, unconvincingly apologetic. “We understand you’re in a tough spot, and we’d like to help you out. But do you have change for a $20?”
Even routinely clocking between 60 and 90 hours of work a week, my finances have always been tenuous at best. My friends have long joked that I’m the opposite of even-steven; it’s not uncommon for me to land a last-minute housesitting gig or bartending shift – some source of extra income – only to have my car develop an ailment that costs damn near the amount I earned.
By the time I fled from New York to San Diego to live with a friend, following the loss of three paid work contracts in just a few months last year, I was no longer able to avoid a hard truth: My two college degrees and my strong work ethic weren’t enough to achieve the American Dream I had been told about growing up. And now, my short-lived relief at finally having health care (#ThanksObama), guaranteed food to eat, and community resources like great credit unions, accessible doctors, and affordable public transportation was replaced with a familiar feeling of exhausted frustration.
That frustration, and the accompanying weight of never being able to take eating for granted – of never being able to grocery shop or pull into a drive-thru without checking an account balance and doing a month’s worth of math – is a feeling far too many Americans know all too well.
And it’s a feeling even more Americans will experience if Republicans have their way.
Many GOP politicians have long been opposed to providing food assistance to Americans in need; just this week, the Oklahoma Republican Party posted a message on Facebook likening food stamp recipients to animals.
Meanwhile, Republicans in the U.S. House have been busy poverty-shaming via their discussion of budget negotiations. It seems that if they can’t outright cut a program to help hungry Americans, they’ll still boast about it as though they have.
When Congress returned from recess after the July 4th holiday, one of the majority party’s first orders of business was to approve the fiscal year 2016 agriculture appropriation bill through the House Appropriations Committee – Congress’s wallet, essentially. The committee’s press release describes year-over-year decreases in allocations of $184 million and $139 million, respectively, to SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the formal name for food stamps) and WIC (the Women, Infants, and Children program).
Any layperson reading that could easily be led to believe that the committee members, most of them Republicans, cut funding for the programs. But in fact, because the funding formulas for SNAP and WIC include factors like expected enrollment and food inflation – these are built into the programs by law – Congress can’t reduce funding to the programs without passing separate legislation to change those formulas. This is true despite Republicans routinely campaigning on a platform of trimming the fat in “entitlements.”
As someone who spent the first six months of 2015 on food assistance, it’s hard for me to decide which is worse: taking action to keep me hungry, or touting an action they didn’t take to please their supporters.
Either way, their intentions are more than clear in their ten-year blueprint for balancing the budget, the House Budget Committee plan. Released in March, the plan would tighten the belts of hungry Americans even further than the much maligned 2011 Budget Control Act (the result of the sequester following the most recent game of chicken over the budget). According to the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the plan’s $5.3 trillion in non-defense cuts include a $125 billion slash in SNAP funding and “would end food assistance for millions of low-income families, cut benefits for millions of such households, or do some combination of the two.”
The FY2016 Conference Agreement, in which the ten-year plan is hammered out, explains why this approximately 0.0085 percent reduction in the $3.8 trillion federal budget is necessary, according to the GOP: priorities and redundancy.
“The legislation targets this funding to national programs that have the most benefit to the American people and the U.S. economy, while reducing inefficient, wasteful, or lower-priority programs and agencies.”
That’s a bold move, saying that 14 percent of Americans don’t rate on your party’s priority list, just a month before the first GOP debate of the 2016 presidential election season.
The agreement continues by bragging that the GOP budget “[improves transparency, efficiency, effectiveness and accountability of the federal government by cutting waste, eliminating redundancies and enacting regulatory reform.”
To be fair, I suppose having 49 million of me is rather redundant.
Indeed, my situation is hardly an anomaly. The U.S. Conference of Mayors has found that 84 percent of cities expect requests for emergency food assistance like mine to increase over the next year. Officials in 13 cities estimated that even with current funding levels, 27 percent of the need went unmet last year.
Therein lies the jaw-dropping gall of the majority party: They may not have been able to alter the SNAP and WIC formulas to reduce a life-line depended on by millions, but they somehow find bragging about doing so in the face of huge unmet need a winning strategy with their base.
Don’t be mistaken: The 114th Congress didn’t invent the concept of balancing the budget on the backs of the poor, or demonizing those of us who are too lazy to take a fourth job. Their ten-year plan and the way they’re describing this budget, are absolutely in line with the current incarnation of the Republican Party.
From 2012 to 2014, the GOP put its rising star, Paul Ryan, in charge of developing a budget they could sell to the American people. Over that period, Ryan’s budgets included ten-year plans to cut SNAP by $134 billion, $135 billion and then $137 billion.
Should the Senate match the House numbers in an upcoming vote, the bills will be voted on by the full Senate and House on their way to President Obama, with a signature required by law this fall. Senate democrats are threatening to oppose spending bills that adhere to the caps in the 2011 Budget Control Act. The White House, of course, also has the power to reject any budget that lands on the president’s desk – even one in which the GOP manages to fund the bare minimum required by law for SNAP and WIC. President Obama’s budget request proposed a $150 million contingency fund to support an anticipated caseload of 8.5 million women, infants, and children, and he’s free to send a bill without that accommodation back to Congress.
If the Democrats and the White House decide to listen to groups that know the existing funding formulas alone aren’t sufficient and stand up for the poor, the country could see the government come to yet another standstill – or become mired in seemingly never-ending rounds of continuing resolutions to keep the wheels moving while accomplishing nothing.
Trying to take food out of my mouth is hardly their only goal; they’re also still after my health care. Republicans are threatening to use the budget process to go after everything from entitlement programs to Obamacare (despite the recent Supreme Court ruling in the Obama administration’s favor). Paul Ryan said he’d use the reconciliation process designed to avoid a Senate filibuster to repeal the entirety of the Affordable Care Act if he could find a way, “given the restraints of reconciliation.”
I can’t be poor enough or sick enough or hungry enough for my needs and rights to come off the chopping block. Even when they can’t achieve an actual cut, conservatives are spinning my basic needs as wasteful and bragging that they have rationed my rations. I’m politically convenient because – despite being part of a very sizeable minority – I have no lobbying power or prevailing champion in the 2016 election pool.
Until the poor are seen as people – until it’s understood that we’re the inevitable product of a capitalist system that accepts that a certain number of human beings will be hungry – our basic needs will continue to be eligible for sacrifice just to shave a few tenths of a percentage point off the nation’s bottom line.
Editor’s note: Sections of this piece have been updated to correct information about the federal budget process and the steps lawmakers must take to cut funding for SNAP and WIC.