Behind The House Conservatives’ Assault On Nutrition Assistance

The one thing that’s worse than the House Republican vote Thursday to pass a farm bill that did not include the nutrition assistance program commonly known as food stamps is what was likely to happen if the nutrition assistance program remained part of the bill.

After having been unable to get support for a farm bill that cut $20 billion from what is now the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP, House Republicans were aiming for even deeper cuts and higher barriers to keep people from receiving benefits. Now that the subsidies to farmers and agribusiness are taken care of, extremists in the House Republican caucus hope to ram through morally reprehensible changes to the program.

“We wanted separation, and we got it,” Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-IND), one of the House farm bill’s chief architects, said. “You’ve got to take these wins when you can get them.”

One of the most odious changes that House conservatives are seeking to make in the program is to impose work requirements and job training as a requisite for receiving SNAP benefits. An amendment that was offered by Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.) the last time the farm bill was on the floor sought to impose work requirements and job training as a requisite for receiving SNAP benefits. This reflects
a profound denial of reality – about 60 percent of non-disabled working-age adults who receive SNAP benefits already work, and 70 percent of all SNAP recipients are either children, the elderly or have a disability. It also neutralizes a central feature of the SNAP program: it helps people the most when the economy is at its weakest. When people lose jobs and can’t quickly get rehired in a weak economy, SNAP is there to sustain them and their families until they can get back to work.

The changes favored by House Republicans would have rewarded states that cut people off of SNAP benefits and discourage hungry people from seeking aid. This was detailed in a scathing analysis of the Southerland provision by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. The provision would have paid states for cutting SNAP benefits to people who can’t find work. As states begin to cut off SNAP beneficiaries, they are required to measure the subsequent savings, and they would receive half of the whatever savings they accumulated from the reduction in recipients. States could use these “bonus grants” however they wished, such as for a state corporate subsidy program or to offset a millionaire tax break.

In House floor debate, Majority Leader Eric Cantor and other colleagues cited what they consider the success of the 1996 welfare reform as evidence that the “work works” undertone of the Southerland provision is the real helping hand that SNAP beneficiaries need. That is despite ample evidence that welfare reform was a failure – it did not reduce poverty and, in the wake of the financial crash and the subsequent jobless recovery, has not meant more work for struggling heads of households. One Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report noted that the welfare program, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, had only given aid to 68 out of every 100 impoverished families with children in 1996; by 2010 that number was cut by almost two-thirds, to 27 of every 100 impoverished families with children.

The conservative effort to remake the food stamps program into this decade’s version of welfare reform is to do what welfare reform did – deny struggling people the essentials of life in the name of an immoral and ineffectual ideology that believes that the poor, who have only themselves to blame for their poverty, are owed nothing, least of all by the beneficiaries of an economy that has been rigged in their favor.

Organizations and advocates who have done extensive research on food assistance programs are outraged by the House’s irresponsible and rash decision to leave families and children in limbo. Feeding America has come out against the bill, and has urged Congress to move forward with a bipartisan commitment to hunger relief and strengthening SNAP. Likewise, the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus have vehemently opposed the bill. The Democratic Caucus shares this sentiment and are waiting for the House to revisit the issue in the coming weeks, according to communications director James Gleeson. Meanwhile, President Obama has said that he will veto any bill that did not include food aid.

This week’s farm bill vote must go down as a defining vote separating those who would lead America toward a you’re-on-your-own, winner-take-all dystopia and one in which we use our collective resources to support each other and rise together. Yes, House Republicans have destroyed one of the last areas where bipartisanship and beneficial deal-making was possible, even if the result often reflected government at its special-interest-besotted worst. But what makes this truly blood-boiling is that House conservatives chose ideological fetishism over the basic moral principle of being our brothers and sister’s keeper, with the most vulnerable in our society paying the price.


Isaiah J. Poole contributed to this post.

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