The Battle against Food Stamps

War on SNAP

The United States might well be the most powerful nation on earth in terms of military muscle, and wield economic clout despite being severely humbled by the financial crisis. The country of business and capital is not bound to fall off the historical stage too soon. Its poor, however, might. Little is known about the huge swath of poverty that prevails in the country, other than an unhealthy sense that the existence of wealth presumes the existence of poverty. The United States remains transfixed by a gilded age, obsessed, as William Dean Howells suggested, by inequality. The Founding Fathers were less interested in the essence of a democratic impulse than a republican order, one of neat balance rather than levelling justice.

The politics of the belly remains a sensitive business, and political leaders have been concerned what the hungry stomach might do. What matters is wading off starvation, predicting what “nutrition levels” the poor require, and how they might manage the logistics of reaching grocery stores and food outlets. Much of this remains logistical fantasy but important. “We got a picture of a gorge, with farm surpluses on one cliff and under-nourished city folks with outstretched hands on the other,” claimed Milo Perkins, responsible for the first Food Stamp Program implemented in May 1939. Chronic unemployment existed alongside agricultural surpluses that threatened to go to waste.

Food stamp schemes have remained a feature of the U.S. republic since, a never-ending reminder of Perkins’ symbolic, and actual gorge of inequality. Their effectiveness has been praised for not being geographically restrictive, or periodical (such as school meals). The technical boffins evidently felt that a revision of the term was needed, coming up with the current term SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) in 2008. Current numbers of recipients (or “participants” as policy analysts prefer) hover around 47 million.

The American Economic Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) increased the SNAP benefit by 13.6 percent beginning April 2009. It was always something of a shock absorber, a measure to make sure the disaffected poor would be able to have something in their belly. But as human vulnerability is treated as weakness by the budget hawks of the GOP, the scheme was always going to come under criticism and eventual savaging.

As of late, the axe man in chief is Paul Ryan, who holds the reins of the House Budget Committee like a horseman of the apocalypse. Previous estimates had projected Ryan’s cuts at hitting families of three by about $20 to $25 a month, making it about $240 to $300 a year (Centre for Budget and Policy Priorities, May 1). The cuts, it seems, promise to be deeper than that – a staggering slash of $135 billion, or almost 18 percent over the next ten years. Chairman Ryan is evidently of the view that the growth of SNAP’s budget is a problem that needs to be rectified, even if it is not contributing to the nation’s long-term budgetary issues.

As senior policy analyst Dottie Rosenbaum points out, writing for the Centre on Budget and Policy Priorities (May 14), “The Congressional Budget Office projects that SNAP spending will fall to 1995 levels as a share of Gross Domestic Product by 2019.” Damn the state coffers, private charities and non-profits such as Feeding America can mop up the mess.

The way Ryan has proposed implementing the cuts will be accelerated, with an initial $125 billion slashed over a period of five years. This promises to involve a few standard tricks of the budgetary trade. One is to implement cuts by changing the criteria for people to receive them. Another might be to set the maximum SNAP benefit at 73 percent of the Thrifty Food Plan. This, as Stacy Dean notes in the Huffington Post (May 19), is the estimate arrived by the U.S. Agriculture Department in terms of assessing a family’s needs to afford a basic, adequate diet. What is promised is an unprecedented across the board reduction that will affect all recipients.

As most SNAP recipients – 80 percent or so – live below the poverty line, with 42 percent earning incomes half that of the poverty line, such cuts will be a vicious battering. In terms of numbers, we are talking about 22 million children, of which 10 million live in conditions deemed “deep poverty”. Keeping a populace fed might be the sacred cow of many states but in the United States, it is a governmental burden that requires lifting. The accountants promise to do violence to the poor – again.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: Read other articles by Binoy.