House conservatives revealed a lot about themselves and their priorities when they passed a farm bill that did not include nutrition programs like SNAP – the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, known best as "food stamps" – but fast-tracked, without real debate, entitlement programs for Big Agra. But that's not the half of it. It gets worse.
House Republicans are poised to plunge their budget knives even deeper into programs that help millions of financially struggling people during the weak recovery of the past four years. If leading House conservatives have their way, it won't just mean that fewer low-income people will get those debit cards so they can buy food. It will mean seniors will continue to lose visits from Meals on Wheels programs and other services. It will mean youths will not have work-study jobs. It will mean countless young families who are working at low-wage jobs will not be able to get help getting into increasing unaffordable apartments or paying for skyrocketing child care.
These are just some of the consequences of spending decisions by the House Appropriations Committee for fiscal year 2014. Non-defense discretionary spending authority would be reduced by a projected $41 billion below current sequestration-reduced levels. These funding decisions would clearly worsen the damage already done by federal budget sequestration, which has proven to have had severe effects on millions of economically vulnerable people, contrary to stories and politician statements that the sequester has not done any significant harm.
Affected programs include a host of domestic aid programs that are, along with the SNAP program, under the umbrella of the Agriculture department but were also left out of the farm bill that House Republicans passed.
Making Food Pantries Suffer
Some conservatives say that many hungry families should rely on food pantries instead of government. But food pantries themselves rely heavily on government – and austerity-constrained government is failing them. Through the Emergency Food Assistance Program, states award grants to organizations that serve meals or offer groceries to the homeless or low-income families. These food banks also play vital roles in such natural disasters as superstorm Sandy.
These services cannot operate on donations alone; they are already under significant strain. The group Feeding America reports that 97 percent of their food banks in their network received less food in 2012 than in the previous year; more than half saw declines of 40 percent or more – at a time of high unemployment and underemployment. This could be addressed by allowing program funding to increase to meet increased demand in a weak economy and in line with food costs. So far, that's not happening.
The Nutrition Education and Obesity Prevention Program, which the Obama administration started in 2010 to combat childhood obesity, is also being under threat by House Republicans. States receive grants that help pay for nutrition education programs. Initiatives like the New York State Department of Health’s Eat Well Play Hard in Child Care Settings have been able to use the program to get children to eat more vegetables and fruit, and drink low-fat or no-fat milk. Just as the United States is beginning to get a handle on its childhood obesity problem, House conservatives are about to cut what one study has found to be a significant contributor to this success.
Conservatives have also placed under the budget knife seniors who rely on services provided through the Commodity Supplemental Food Program. While the program also serves pregnant and breastfeeding women and infants, its largest constituency by far is senior citizens, according to the National Commodity Supplemental Food Program Association. As it turns out, one in four respondents served by the program were also SNAP beneficiaries. More than half of those living alone have less than $750 a month in income. Over 60 percent said that most of their income goes to paying medical bills, and more than half run out of food before the end of the month.
Turning Back the Clock – Literally
The House has not scheduled action on the nutrition assistance portion of the farm bill. But when it does, the 170-plus members of the hard-right Republican Study Committee have laid out their demands, which include cutting funding for nutrition assistance program to 2008 levels for SNAP spending – not adjusted for inflation, but the exact dollar amount spent in 2008. That would mean a cut of more than 50 percent, from $79 billion in 2012 to $37.6 billion.
The nutrition programs themselves would be repealed and replaced with a single block grant for states, and states would be required to use a portion of the grant for "work activation" programs, under the false presumption that able-bodied people who receive food aid don't work or don't look for work. In fact, six out of 10 working-age SNAP recipients have jobs. The problem isn't the will to work; the problem is subsistence-level wages that don't lift workers out of poverty.
States would also be allowed to enact far more restrictive eligibility standards for nutrition assistance than currently exist under federal law, and would in fact have incentives to do so, since they would be allowed to put up to 30 percent of their block grant into a "rainy day fund" that is ostensibly intended to cover periods when a weak economy increases program demand. House conservatives have also proposed that states be rewarded, as they are in welfare "reform," based on the extent to which they can keep people from receiving SNAP benefits.
As for aid programs that are funded through the Department of Health and Human Services, the House Appropriations Committee has yet to finalize its proposals and has yet to schedule an appropriations bill markup for that agency. But for the past month the Coalition for Human Needs and USAction have been sounding the alarm over what has been emerging from that committee. A petition drafted by the two organizations notes that to accommodate a 5 percent increase in Pentagon spending while holding the rest of government spending at sequestration levels, "the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education are slashed 18.6 percent below this year’s funding," and "energy, conservation, and environmental protection programs are cut between 11 and 22 percent."
A Question of Values
As the petition says, these cuts "trample on the core American values of providing opportunity for our children, security for our elders, and a strong future for all of our communities."
But they exemplify the core values of the callous conservatives who now control the Republican Party in the House. They are content with an America in which concern for the common good is, to borrow a phrase from former Vice President Dick Cheney, nothing more than "a sign of personal virtue" rather than a fundamental obligation of membership in the American community.
These conservatives abide government policies that enable the haves to get more, but attack government when it dares to lift the have-nots and have-littles. A multinational corporation need not be obligated to do anything to justify getting a subsidy or escape paying taxes. But these champions of the oligarchy would demand that a mother who can't make ends meet on a minimum-wage job – if in fact she can find someone who would hire her – has to prove that she is worthy of the crumbs off our collective table, and carefully monitored lest she take a crumb too many.
This is the moral depravity to which the cabal of conservatives who now control the People's House would bring us. They clearly can't help themselves. But we do not apologize for the fact that we are a better nation than that, and because we are a better nation than that – because for us not leaving children, the elderly or the financially vulnerable behind is not a catchy slogan but a way of life and the organizing principle of the democracy we want for our country – we will not stop calling them out and or working to cleanse their ideological toxin out of our body politic.
Nehemiah Rolle contributed to this post.