Taking Food Out of Poor Kids’ Mouths

By Randy Rosenthal

The US Department of Agriculture has proposed restricting access to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (known as “food stamps”) on the ostensible grounds that it is necessary to close a loophole in the program. But the real reason, it appears, is an ideological commitment to lowering taxes on the rich and cutting government spending on the poor. 

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Back in 1964, President Johnson initiated the War on Poverty, which aimed to eradicate the conditions of poverty by providing American citizens with access to food, education, and a secure retirement. Today, the Trump Administration is leading a War against the Poor, which aims to do the opposite. The most recent and blatant act in this war is the US Department of Agriculture’s proposal to restrict the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), otherwise known as food stamps.

On July 23, the USDA released a statement about the proposal, which aims to save $2.5 billion by taking 3 million people off of food stamps. The statement doesn’t mention it, but 500,000 of these people are children who will automatically lose access to free school lunches.

The ostensible rationale behind the proposal is that there is “a loophole” that needs to be closed: low income participants receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits are automatically eligible for food stamps. Because of this policy, which is designed to help transition families toward economic independence, the USDA claims that people are receiving assistance when they clearly don’t need it. To support this claim, they point to a Minnesota man who enrolled in the program, even though he was a millionaire.

In a statement explaining the proposal, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue (who has a net worth of somewhere between $11 million and $53 million) said, “we are changing the rules, preventing abuse of a critical safety net system, so those who need food assistance the most are the only ones who receive it.” After all, he said, “The American people expect the government to be fair, efficient, and have integrity.” How can someone argue with that? It sounds good. But it’s not. In fact, it’s the height of hypocrisy and deviousness.

First of all, if a family qualifies for TANF, they are by definition needy, and therefore need food stamps. Second, who is this Minnesota man? His name is Rob Undersander. On the application, he stated his income, which was low because he is retired, and did not state his assets, which is not required in the form. He then received SNAP benefits for 18 months, simply to show he could waste tax-payer money. Bravo. But how many other people would spend their time applying for a program they don’t need? Probably no one. More importantly, Undersander did not apply for or receive TANF benefits, and so the loophole that is supposedly being closed has nothing to do with his case. That is, the stated rationale behind the proposal is fallacious.

In truth, the recent proposal is part of a larger Republican war on the poor. For instance, back in May, the Administration proposed regulatory changes to redefine the formula for calculating poverty. If they could lower the official poverty line by adjusting how inflation is measured, then fewer people would officially qualify as poor, resulting in fewer people eligible for benefits such as food stamps and Medicaid.

Currently, a family of four with an income of $25,750 or less is considered poor and eligible for government programs. There are about 40 million Americans considered to be living in poverty, or about 12% of our population. That’s a huge number of people who are struggling, among them parents who cannot afford to provide food for their children. That’s why we have such programs as SNAP and offer free school lunches, because, obviously, if kids can’t eat a decent meal, they can’t learn. About 38 million Americans receive food stamps, and 56% of SNAP benefits go to households at or below half of the poverty line. Yet SNAP not only benefits people in poverty, it prevents it, keeping 8.4 million people out of poverty in 2015, including 3.8 million children.

But SNAP does more than provide food and help people get out of poverty. It actually greatly helps the economy. In fact, SNAP benefits are considered one of the fastest and most effective forms of economic stimulus. According to the USDA’s own Economic Research Service, $1 billion of SNAP benefits creates 8,900-17,900 full-time jobs, and every $5 of SNAP benefits generates $9 in total economic activity. Conversely, for every $1 billion in cuts to SNAP funding, 11,437 jobs would be destroyed. This means that the Trump Administration’s recent proposal would actually result in a loss of about 28,590 jobs. Finally, as a share of our GDP, SNAP spending has been steadily decreasing, according to the Congressional Budget Office, and is not contributing to long-term budgetary pressures.

So the question is: Why would we want to literally be taking food out of poor children’s mouths? Why take food off the tables of low-income families? Why are millionaires and billionaires fighting a war against the poor? Whether a family has an annual income of $20,000 or $40,000, life for them is hard. So why make things harder for people who are already having a hard time?

It’s not simply to save $2.5 billion. If the Trump Administration really cared about saving tax-payer dollars, they wouldn’t have increased military spending by $164 billion since 2016, proposing to spend an irresponsible $750 billion on defense in 2020. And they would not have recently passed tax-cuts that will cost the federal government $17 billion. These tax cuts mostly benefit millionaires, and so in essence, what the Trump Administration is saying with these proposals is this: Let’s take from the poor and give to the rich. It’s a reverse Robin Hood.

No, the reason behind this proposal is not practical but ideological. It is not because the administration wants to be fair, efficient, and have integrity, but because conservatives are blindly devoted to lowering taxes and cutting programs designed to help the poor. And due to this obsessive commitment to an abstract idea, millions of actual human beings will suffer.

Randy Rosenthal teaches writing at Harvard University, where he recently earned a Masters of Theological Studies, with a Buddhist Studies focus. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and many other publications. He edits at bestbookediting.com.

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