Cruel cost of cutting food stamps

Published 12:00 pm Saturday, October 5, 2013

Last week Republicans in the House of Representatives voted to slash food stamp spending by $39 billion over 10 years. The next day, the Washington Post ran a picture of a job fair in suburban Maryland. The caption reported that “about 1,000 applicants an hour” streamed into the event searching for work.

A few days later, Post columnist Petula Dvorak reported that when Wal-Mart opened a hiring center for six new stores in Washington, a line of job-seekers was “snaking down the sidewalk” at daybreak. One of them, 52-year-old Ronald Knight, said he was taking care of his dying mother:  “A job is a job and I need a job. All I want is to work, and I’ll take anything.”

These stories tell a cruel tale. Republicans say that cutting food stamps would reduce “dependency” and push recipients into the workforce. That’s a noble goal, but right now it’s also an ideological illusion.

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The official unemployment rate is 7.3 percent, but the real rate is double that. Many frustrated job-seekers have settled for part-time positions or dropped out of the market entirely. Even folks like Knight, who will “take anything,” remain unemployed.

The same Republicans who voted to cut food stamps acknowledge the problem when it suits their political purpose. Last June, Speaker John Boehner charged that the “American people are asking, ‘Where are the jobs?’”

The Speaker can’t have it both ways. If jobs are that scarce, then food stamps are needed more than ever.

One group of Republicans knows that to be true: governors. Under current law, able-bodied adults with no dependents can only receive food stamps for three months over three years. That limit can now be waived in times of economic hardship, and 45 states, including many red ones, have applied for those waivers. But the House bill would eliminate that option.

Legislators can afford self-delusion; governors have to take responsibility and deal with reality.

The food stamp battle is part of a larger war in Washington, instigated by hardline conservatives determined to shrink the size of government, and one casualty is the spirit of bipartisanship that has long governed food and farm issues.

For many decades, agricultural subsidies and feeding programs were combined into one bill, cementing the cooperation of urban and rural legislators. As Bob Dole, a former Republican leader in the Senate, and Tom Daschle, a former Democratic leader, wrote in the Los Angeles Times last week, “We proudly count ourselves among a series of bipartisan teams of legislators who worked … to address hunger through provisions in the farm bill.”

But today, anything that smacks of bipartisanship is poison. That’s why Republican leaders took food stamps out of the farm bill and passed a stand-alone measure. They wanted to thwart any possibility of cross-aisle cooperation.

Cooperation is not the only casualty. So is compassion. The Reagan era was marked by a rhetorical war against the poor, a cascade of criticism about “welfare queens” buying beer and steaks on food stamps. The current debate echoes with the same mean-spirited, wrong-headed stereotypes: The poor are shiftless moochers and Democrats want to raise taxes on hard-working Americans to buy the votes of those deadbeats.

Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas told the House that slicing food stamps sent a harsh message: “You can no longer sit on your couch … and expect the federal taxpayer to feed you.”

Republicans used that line of attack very effectively for many years, winning five of six presidential elections between 1968 and 1988. But it hasn’t worked so well lately. Democrats have won the popular vote in five of the last six elections, and even some conservatives think the assault on food stamps will backfire.

Writing for National Review Online, Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center said Republicans lost the White House last year in large part because their candidate “was perceived as not caring about average Americans.” And “taking food away from needy people at a time of a tepid job market” shows that the GOP “has a total tin ear to American politics.”

Sure, any public program comes with corruption, but food stamp fraud accounts for one penny out of every dollar. Most Americans who need help are not sitting on their couches waiting for a handout. They’re lining up at dawn, begging for a job and willing to “take anything.” And even when they get a job, they still often struggle to feed their families. They should not go hungry. Not here. Not in America.

(Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at