By Christopher D. Cook for the Los Angeles Times (May 24, 2013)
Slashing food aid makes no sense in humanitarian, economic or public health terms.
“To hear Republicans — and some Democrats — in Congress talk, you’d think food-stamp dollars just disappear into a black hole. The prevailing debate in the Senate and House versions of the farm bill, which contains funding for food stamps (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP), is over how much to cut. But when more than 15% of Americans remain impoverished, slashing food assistance for the poor makes no sense in humanitarian, economic or public health terms.
The House bill, which is gaining steam after passage by the Agriculture Committee last week, is the more draconian of the two. It would chop $20 billion over 10 years from SNAP, and its changes to food-stamp eligibility rules would cut off vital sustenance for about 2 million low-income people, including seniors and families with children. According to the Congressional Budget Office, 210,000 children in low-income families would lose their free school meals under the House plan.
The Senate version would cut far less, though a final figure will be hashed out by a conference committee in June. But the attacks on food assistance for the poor are deeply misguided and are only going to get worse. The proposed House budget from Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) seeks to gut food stamps by another $135 billion through block grants to states.
Yet government and other studies clearly show that food stamps are among the most wisely spent public dollars, providing essential nourishment and public health benefits to low-income people as well as economic stimulus to rural and urban communities. These are returns on spending that you won’t find in the corporate tax giveaways and military spending boondoggles routinely supported by both political parties, even as they scream for austerity when it comes to slashing ‘entitlements’ and food assistance for the poor.
The Trust for America’s Health, a health advocacy organization that focuses on disease prevention, warned recently of the consequences of cutting food stamps: ‘If the nation continues to underfund vital public health programs, we will never achieve long-term fiscal stability, as it will be impossible to help people get/stay healthy, happy and productive.’
Indeed, according to a 2011 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, ‘research shows that low-income households participating in SNAP have access to more food energy, protein and a broad array of essential vitamins and minerals in their home food supply compared to eligible nonparticipants.’ [….]
In another key finding, the National Academy of Sciences reported that food stamps helped lift nearly 4 million Americans out of poverty in 2010, while improving basic food and economic security for millions more.
Cutting food stamps also means reducing economic stimulus and job creation, precisely what’s needed to help reduce poverty and hunger. The 2011 USDA study found that food-stamp dollars ‘ripple throughout the economies of the community, state and nation,’ creating multiple levels of economic stimulus. The study also found that ‘every $5 in new SNAP benefits generates a total of $9.20 in community spending.’ Each additional food-stamp dollar generates another 17 to 47 cents of additional food purchases. [….]
In the farm bills moving through Congress, the politics of austerity are again being used to undermine food assistance for the poor. As the House and Senate debate how many dollars and people to cut from food stamps, their members should consider the daily realities the poor face. Most are living on a few dollars a day for food and, at best, work in minimum-wage jobs that barely cover rent. Cutting off these basic supports for those at the bottom of our economy is unwise, counterproductive and shameful.”
Christopher D. Cook is a journalist and the author of Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis (2006).
Please note: Inexplicaby, Typepad has twice failed to post my reply to the first comment to this post so I am making it here. First, the “case for Food Stamps” was not made by me, but by the author of the editorial, Christopher Cook, although I am in wholehearted agreement with his views. Second, the discussion and debate in Congress is not about possible alternatives to the Food Stamp program but about possible cuts to this particular Welfare State provision of food aid to the poor. Personally, I would prefer a Guaranteed Annual Income (or Basic Income Grant) scheme, but that is not what is at issue here. Finally, and assuming what is intended by the garbled and inarticulate word “gummint” is the term government, in a democratic welfare regime (be it liberal, corporatist, or social democratic), the payment of taxes does not amount to theft, either literally or figuratively. To believe otherwise, evidences a failure in understanding the nature of modern democratic governance, in the nature of taxation, and in the role of economics in solving collective action problems in a democratic polity (in this case, as a modest principle of interpersonal ethics writ large so as to discharge our moral duties to vulnerable and thus dependent others) wherein the function of markets depends on the laws of the State. In any case, as Robert E. Goodin persuasively argued in Reasons for Welfare: The Political Theory of the Welfare State (1988), those who advocate market principles will find it difficult if not impossible to avoid at the same time committing themselves to a least a minimal welfare state, as the welfare state addresses well-known historical instances of market failure while at the same time affording new opportunities for those are vulnerable and dependent to participate in markets. The welfare state in fact serves to safeguard several fundamental preconditions of the market in Goodin’s argument, as markets presuppose, first, secure property rights, second, that not all goods or things will be subect to the marketplace, “for there to one sector that is governed by the laws of the market, there must be some other sector that is not.” Third, markets presume or presuppose that its participants are essentially independent (or free) agents: “A variety of arguments (political, sociological, economic, and ultimately moral) converge on the conclusion that dependent agents [the converse of the state of independence or the state of insufficient freedom] ought to be beyond the play of market forces. In order for people to participate in the market as independent agents, there must be some nonmarket sector to meet the sorts of needs that would otherwise render those people dependent, and hence unqualified for market relations.” In short, welfare state provision like Food Stamps renders otherwise dependent individuals substantially independent of those market transactions that created or exacerbate their vulnerability (and increase the likelihood of exploitation), while enhancing their potential or capacity for some forms of market participation.