Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Truth about Food Stamps and the Right to Access to Affordable Food

by Nomad

A Kentucky Congressman's tweet about food stamps demonstrates how detached the GOP is when it comes to the economic realities of hunger in America.

The Right to Affordable Food

The other day, I read that a Republican congressman from Kentucky, Thomas Massie, facetiously asked, if affordable healthcare is a right, whether Americans should also have a right to food.

The tweet was, our source tells us, "an attempt to combat criticism from Democrats of conservative lawmakers’ proposals to reform the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)."
Even though Massie probably didn't realize it, he brings up a good point. Why shouldn't affordable food for all Americans be a right in the world's richest countries? Can't we as a nation afford to feed our poor?

And, while we're at it, why not a right to have access to clean water or clean air? Safe working conditions and job security?

It might shock Massie to learn that access to affordable food is already recognized as a human right that includes "the right for people to feed themselves in dignity, implying that sufficient food is available, that people have the means to access it, and that it adequately meets the individual's dietary needs." 
It protects "the right of all human beings to be free from hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition."

The recognition for this right is derived from the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which, as of May 2012, has been signed onto by In a total of 106 countries.
The right to food is also recognized in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 25) as part of the right to an adequate standard of living.
Shockingly, the United States pretty much stands alone in the world in its refusal to recognize that its citizens have a right to food. 

American conservatives would also point out that the right to food does not imply that governments have an obligation to hand out free food to everyone who wants it. The right to food access is generally applied to emergencies like disasters or war or some humanitarian crises.
It does not apply to victims of economic inequality or the incompetence, intolerance and ignorance of politicians. 

The Political Disconnect in Kentucky

Massie's remarks struck a lot of people as hypocritical: especially, given the fact that he claims to be a pro-lifer and devout Christian, which is something he advertised when he campaigned.
Our faith is important to us and we work hard to abide by Christian principles. The skyrocketing numbers of single parent households are evidence that government social policies are undermining the fabric of family. I will work for smaller, less intrusive government to help restore America’s strong sense of family and community-based support systems.
Yet, there are plenty of passages in the Bible extolling a duty of every true Christian to feed the hungry. While talking about restoring a strong sense of family, Massie apparently thinks it is intrusive to ensure Kentucky have food on their family table.

Beyond that, as a representative, Massie's tweet suggests an extreme disconnect between the man and his constituents. After all, when it comes to federal dependency, Kentucky ranks second of all 50 states. In fact, according to the USDA, the program serves a broad spectrum of low-income Kentuckians.

In the Fiscal Year 2016, SNAP, considered "the cornerstone of the Nation’s nutrition assistance safety net," provided about $.98 billion dollars in food benefits to a monthly average of 666,264 people in Kentucky. Here's a breakdown of the expenses in Kentucky:

Massie isn't the only Republican politician from Kentucky who thinks cutting social programs so many families depend upon is a splendid idea. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently declared the only way to lower the record-high federal deficit - which is expected to climb from $665 billion in 2017 to $1.1 trillion next year- would be to cut entitlement programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

Raising taxes on the super-wealthy as a means of generating revenue? No way, Jose. Cutting a bloated military budget? That's out of the question. (Who's going to defend us against our enemies, like Putin?)

According to McConnell, it's the people on "entitlement" programs that must be sacrificed in order to reduce Big Government.
True, there was no specific mention of SNAP.
Still, it's quite a bold thing to say for a politician who hails from a state where 18.5% of the population survives below the poverty line. Kentucky just happens to be the fifth poorest state in the United States

Penny-wise, Pound-foolish

In reality, the idea that cutting food stamps will solve the deficit problems is what people used to call "penny-wise, pound-foolish." How so?
Despite what a lot of social-program cutters think, SNAP is really an investment in the community. Every dollar spent in new SNAP benefits results in $1.80 in total economic activity.

That's true not only for Kentucky but across the nation. It currently provides over 47 million participants in about 23 million low-income households with debit cards they can use to purchase food each month.
According to research from The Center of Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research and policy institute,  SNAP accounts for about 10 percent of the food that U.S. families buy for their homes. Participants purchase groceries with SNAP benefits at about 260,000 retailers — from superstores to farmers’ markets — across the country.
By increasing low-income households’ purchasing power so they can buy the food they need directly from stores, SNAP integrates economically marginalized households with almost no government administrative overhead resulting from food distribution.
Between 2013 and 2017, the number of authorized retailers increased by 4 percent. Recent growth in the number of participating retailers has made SNAP an integral part of the food retail industry.
So, cutting such a program upon which so many people depend is not only inhumane, it also makes no economic sense.

Valentines' Day and Border Walls

Republicans in Congress have made it abundantly clear that the safety net of food stamps would be a target for "cost-cutting."

In January, The New Republic poo-pooed the idea that the Republicans would dare dismantle the food stamp program. That kind of talk was just liberal hysteria, fake news, balderdash and poppycock.

And yet, Robert Doar, poverty studies fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, an influential right-wing think tank, was quoted in the article, saying:
“[Republicans] are going to want to do some things with SNAP, there’s no question about it. Some people are going to say they’re awful things. But I think their real intention is to help people work so they can increase their income and need less SNAP benefits as a result.”
Sounds like "smaller, less intrusive government," doesn't it? And yet, research shows that most working-age SNAP recipients (not the elderly or children) have jobs.
While two-thirds of participants are children, elderly, and people with disabilities, who are not expected to work, SNAP also helps workers, both to supplement low wages and support them when they are between jobs.
Millions of low-pay workers live from paycheck to paycheck and lack the key benefits like paid sick leave. That leads to income volatility and job turnover.
These workers are also more likely to experience periods when they are out of work or when their monthly earnings drop, at least temporarily. In this case, SNAP is their lifeline. 
These dynamics lead many adults to participate in SNAP temporarily, often while between jobs or when their work hours are cut.
In February- a month later- there was a federal funding proposal issued by the White House that would cut the amount of food aid given to most recipients, including many military families, and replace it with a subscription-style box of delivered foods.

Waiting for your home-delivered food allowance from the government is about as socialist (and as intrusive) as you can get.

Food Stamps Reform Slipped into Farm Bill

As part of a sweeping farm bill legislation in June, House Republicans passed attachments that would tighten qualifications for obtaining food stamps. Under the SNAP reforms,  Americans aged between 18 and 59 would be required to either work part-time or spend 20 hours a week in workforce training. Note: no mention of minimum wage or living wage requirements.

On the very same day, President Trump proposed to consolidate government aid programs -including SNAP- by revamping the health department. The aim, according to experts, is to "standardized requirements that people must work or prepare for jobs to qualify for government help.”

This cost-reduction proposal is, critics say, the small end of the wedge, the first step in abolishing the program altogether. Make it harder and harder to qualify, reducing the number of people who benefit, use the reduction as a sign that the program is no longer necessary.

The proposal, according to Republicans, is estimated to slash $20 billion from the program’s benefits over the next 10 years. To put that in perspective, that's about as much as Americans spent on Valentines' Day last year. Or another comparison, that's how much Trump wants to spend on his border wall.

The SNAP changes passed through the House but did not survive a Senate vote and the farm bill legislation passed0 sans food stamp changes. (In January, the new Democratic majority will take over in the House, ruling out any further proposals for the foreseeable future.)

One Way to Commit Political Hari-Kari

There's another- more practical- reason why starving the SNAP program was a lousy idea. As the Washington Post pointed out:
In the Trump era, the Republican Party has relied heavily on rural voters. And the most rural 20 percent of the population is also the most likely to live in a household that receives food stamps.
And food-stamp use is particularly high in key Trump strongholds, such as rural Appalachia, the Ozarks and much of the rural South.
Another demographic statistic that Republicans have failed to consider: a significant number of older Americans are already at risk of hunger and malnourishment. A 2017 study noted that 14.7% of seniors face the threat of hunger. This translates into 9.8 million seniors. The SNAP program provides 4.8 million seniors with resources to afford an adequate diet.

Logically, this could have negative consequences for Republicans in 2020. In 2016, older Americans are more likely to vote and, when they did, they consistently voted Republican. Conservative, budget-slashing corporate shilling Republicans. Yet, paradoxically, no age group derives a bigger benefit from our welfare state than America’s elderly. The Republican plan to cut social programs could explain why elderly Americans are slowly but surely turning their backs on the GOP.

Republicans in Congress- those who want to keep their jobs- really ought to be supporting an expansion of social programs, like SNAP, not limiting them.

The Danger of Hungry People  

Cutting food stamps is not just an unchristian idea. And it isn't that it's short-sighted economically and politically-disastrous. It's all those things but it's also dangerous. 

History is littered with examples of what happens when normally rational and law-abiding people begin seeing their children go to be hungry. 

Depression-era president Franklin Roosevelt- a leader who actually faced the realities of a starving population- said:
True individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.
Then again, maybe that's what the Republican party had in mind all along.