Myths cloud farm bill debate

Published 1:00 pm Wednesday, November 20, 2013

It’s unfortunate in the extreme that progress on a new five-year federal farm bill has become intertwined with efforts to curb the rapid growth of the federal food stamp program. Why?

Congress hasn’t passed a farm bill since 2008.

And it’s difficult if not impossible to conduct a cogent debate of the food stamp program in America without become mired in the myths of that program — myths like the so-called “welfare queens” and  other images that have more to do with the politics of race and class than in factual public policy.

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The stereotypical food stamp recipient in political lore is more often than not black, female and poor. In that scenario, the food stamp recipient is a Democratic voter who identifies politically as liberal. But a Pew Center survey earlier this year found what they called “a bipartisan nation of beneficiaries.”

The survey focused on federal entitlements including food stamps, unemployment benefits, welfare, Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare programs. The survey found that significant proportions of Democrats (60 percent) and Republicans (52 percent) say they have benefited from a major entitlement program at some point in their lives. So have nearly equal shares of self-identifying conservatives (57 percent), liberals (53 percent) and moderates (53 percent).

But when dealing solely with the question of food stamps, the survey revealed a partisan component in that about one-in-five (22 percent) of Democrats had received food stamps compared with 10 percent of Republicans. About 17 percent of independents said they had received food stamps.

Food stamps should not define the farm bill debate, but it’s clear that food stamps remain a political lightning rod. For some, it’s a misplaced belief in the “welfare queen” myth. National statistics put the lie to that myth, but it persists.

The Census Bureau documents the facts of the food stamp or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — that over 61 percent of the households that receive food stamps in America are white while some 27 percent of the households are African American.

Bloomberg reporters John McCormick and Greg Giroux compiled an analysis in which they purport that in the 2012 election, there were 254 U.S. counties where the number of food stamp recipients doubled between 2007 and 2011 — and that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney carried 213 of those counties.

Without question, Southern states with high poverty rates like Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee are states where Republicans fare best in presidential politics. There is a huge political disconnect on food stamps, particularly in states like Mississippi where food stamp dependence is highest.

First, there’s the notion that welfare recipients are responsible for the exponential expansion of the food stamp program. Not so. Congress is responsible for the expansion of the food stamps program.

At inception in 1965, food stamps helped only about 561,000 Americans. Now, 47.7 million Americans are dependent. Congress enacted the laws that expanded that program and other entitlements without providing recurring funding to pay for them.  

American farm policy and national nutrition policies should be linked. But holding farm policy hostage to what is a social welfare question is foolish. Congress created food stamps, they expanded the program and they helped create — for the purpose of currying favor with voters — the over-the-top scope of the program.

Under the myths of race and class, running against food stamps is increasingly popular for many politicians. But it ignores the facts of how the program was created and how it grew to what it is today.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 601-507-8004 or