President Trump, a very rich guy who promised to help not-rich people get ahead but so far hasn’t, is pushing rules that would place new limits on a program that helps poor people buy food.
The push isn’t new, but it’s getting new attention due to an Urban Institute study that concluded the rules, if they’d been in place last year, would have reduced the main federal food aid program’s rolls by 3.7 million people — as well as cut food stamp spending by about $4.2 billion. Remember that number for later.
There’s a lot of wonkery in exactly how the administration’s rules would affect the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — “SNAP” in policy-circle shorthand and “food stamps” for just about everyone else. But the gist is that they would require more people to work a certain number of hours in order to get food stamps, place limits on how long some people can remain on the program, and change the rules for enrollment. There are also a lot of experts arguing over whether the people losing benefits really deserved to have them to begin with.
But if you have your own work to do and life to live and don’t have time for a policy deep dive, here are the basics of the situation: Some, probably very small fraction of the people who would lose food stamps probably don’t need need them. Instead, they are getting small payments that help them get enough to eat in the richest country on earth while also paying rent and maybe even (horrors!) buying some stuff that wasn’t absolutely necessary. But some of the people — likely a far greater number of people — who’d lose food stamp payments really do need those benefits to get themselves and their families enough to eat. Without those benefits, they’ll either go hungry or make other, painful sacrifices that rich people have never thought about in their lives.
There are two main arguments conservatives have marshalled in support of food stamp cuts, and they’re both dishonest. Work requirements are often touted as an effort to nudge (starve) people into self-sufficiency. This is based on the assumption that people are sitting contentedly on their food stamp payments and skipping out on all sorts of employment opportunities that would vault them into prosperity. That’s not a great assumption. National unemployment may be low, but that doesn’t mean all these people have the required experience for jobs that they can find, and get to, and afford adequate childcare while they attend.
Supporters of the requirements often claim to be helping poor people access “the dignity of work,” meaning that it’s inherently more satisfying to get paid for work than to depend on public support. That may well be true, provided your boss isn’t abusive and your work conditions are safe and, at the end of the month, your paycheck covers your expenses and maybe even leaves a bit left to save for the future. But you won’t hear those people talking about the “dignity of work” when it comes to organizing workers into unions that protect them from abusive management or unsafe conditions. Nor do they pipe up in favor of the “the dignity of a living wage.” In fact, the people who favor work requirements near universally oppose unions and minimum wage hikes. Go figure.
The other argument for making it harder for poor people to buy food is somehow even flimsier. And that’s the need for fiscal responsibility when it comes to the federal budget. The United States government this year will spend nearly $1 trillion more than it takes in, financing the rest by borrowing money. By now, all that borrowing has added up to, by most calculations, something north of $20 trillion. And so to deal with that debt, many conservatives say, we need to cut spending on “entitlements” — a term for helping people buy food or make ends meet or access health care through Medicaid.
This isn’t a particularly credible argument, given that the deficit could be shrunk by raising taxes on the wealthy and upper middle class, or on the corporations whose poverty wages leave millions of working Americans dependent on government programs. But it’s revealed to be a comically disingenuous argument once you remember the Trump administration’s signature domestic “achievement”: tax breaks that will add at least $1.5 trillion to the deficit over 10 years, according to Congress’s official, nonpartisan accounting agency. The tab will actually be far higher if, as Republicans promise, Congress extends tax cuts for individuals that are currently set to expire. But at a baseline, that works out to about $150 billion annually, which, if math isn’t your thing, is approximately a fuckton more than the $4.2 billion they want to “save” on food stamps.
Who got those tax breaks? The biggest part of the law was dramatically cutting the corporate tax rate. Trump and Republicans also cut taxes for individuals, but the lion’s share of those will go to the very wealthy, as well as to the heirs of the very wealthy, who thanks to the law can now inherit millions up millions of dollars without paying a cent in taxes. Cool. And yes, most everyone did get a tax cut, but for lots of people — particularly the people Trump promised to help — that will work out to about $50 a month. Spend it all in one place.
There’s more to all of this. There will be quibbles with the Urban Institute’s methodology, some made in good faith and some not. There will be endless debates about whether the people getting booted off food stamps — or seeing them reduced — will be able to find work or will just be forced to do without. (The answer: Some will find work, but some won’t, and the government will do next to nothing to track out how many fall in each category.) There’s also a whole world of models of economic growth and government revenue, arcane tweaks to the tax code, and endless academic studies about what will really happen to the people losing their food stamps. And there’ll be a host of people ready to tell you that unless you steep yourself in all of that nuance, you can’t really understand what’s going on.
Ignore them. The basics of the situation are clear: When it came to tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, Trump and Republicans felt the nation’s finances were firm enough to give up more than $1,500,000,000,000. When it’s time to spend a fraction of that to help poor people eat, that’s when the well has supposedly run dry.