Republicans promote the freedom to go hungry
The GOP’s war on food stamps shows how mean-spirited they are
Republican Paul Ryan said the food-stamp scheme was turning a safety net into a ‘hammock’.
The word “freedom” looms large in modern conservative rhetoric. Lobbying groups are given names like FreedomWorks; health reform is denounced not just for its cost but as an assault on, yes, freedom. Oh, and remember when we were supposed to refer to pommes frites as “freedom fries”?
The right’s definition of freedom, however, isn’t one that, say, FDR would recognise. In particular, the third of his famous Four Freedoms – freedom from want – seems to have been turned on its head. Conservatives seem, in particular, to believe that freedom’s just another word for not enough to eat.
Hence the war on food stamps,
which House Republicans have just voted to cut sharply even while voting
to increase farm subsidies.
In a way, you can see why the food stamp programme – or, to use its proper name, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (Snap) – has become a target. Conservatives are deeply committed to the view that the size of government has exploded under President Barack Obama but face the awkward fact that public employment is down sharply, while overall spending has been falling fast as a share of GDP. Snap, however, really has grown a lot, with enrolment rising from 26 million Americans in 2007 to almost 48 million now. Conservatives look at this and see what, to their great disappointment, they can’t find elsewhere in the data: runaway, explosive growth in a government programme. The rest of us, however, see a safety-net programme doing exactly what it’s supposed to do: help more people in a time of widespread economic distress. The recent growth of Snap has indeed been unusual, but then so have the times, in the worst possible way. The Great Recession of 2007-09 was the worst slump since the Great Depression,
and the recovery that followed has
been very weak.
One piece of good news
Multiple careful economic studies have shown that the economic downturn explains the great bulk of the increase in food-stamp use. And while the economic news has been generally bad, one piece of good news is that food stamps have at least mitigated the hardship, keeping millions of Americans out of poverty.
Nor is that the programme’s only benefit. The evidence is now overwhelming that spending cuts in a depressed economy deepen the slump, yet government spending has been falling anyway. Snap, however, is one programme that has been expanding, and as such it has indirectly helped save hundreds of thousands of jobs. But, say the usual suspects, the recession ended in 2009. Why hasn’t recovery brought the Snap rolls down? The answer is, while the recession did indeed officially end in 2009, what we’ve had since then is a recovery of, by and for a small number of people at the top of the income distribution, with none of the gains trickling down to the less fortunate. Adjusted for inflation, the income of the top 1 per cent rose 31 per cent from 2009 to 2012, but the real income of the bottom 40 per cent actually fell 6 per cent. Why should food stamp usage have gone down?