Thursday, April 19, 2018

Fighting hunger or the poor? Political battle over SNAP resumes -- April 19, 2018 column


Long before President Donald Trump bestowed a lavish tax break on the rich and proposed “harvest baskets” for the poor, another president said:

“That hunger and malnutrition should persist in a land such as ours is embarrassing and intolerable.”

Name that president. Was it Democrat FDR, JFK or LBJ?

Guess again. Republican Richard Nixon sent Congress the optimistic message in May 1969 that “the most bounteous of nations” should expand food stamps as part of an array of approaches to beat hunger. The program grew dramatically in the 1970s.

Back then, fighting hunger – not the poor -- was a bipartisan cause.

Then, presidential candidate Ronald Reagan reaped political hay by demonizing “welfare queens.” In office, he slashed the social safety net, including food stamps.

When Republican Newt Gingrich ran for president, briefly, in 2012, he called President Barack Obama “the best food stamp president in American history.” It wasn’t a compliment.

More than 46 million people received food stamps that year. As the economy improved, food stamp rolls dropped. About 40 million participated in January 2018, the lowest level since 2010. 

But, to borrow a Reagan phrase, here we go again.

It’s an election year, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, as food stamps are officially called, is a political flash point.

Democrats on the House Agriculture Committee were in open revolt Wednesday over a bill by Chairman Mike Conaway, Republican of Texas, that cuts spending and imposes new work requirements for almost all SNAP participants.  

Conaway contended his bill provides participants “the hope of a job and a skill and a better future for themselves and their families.”   

But Democrats, while supporting current work requirements, condemned the new rules, which were formulated without their input.

“Let me be clear: This bill, as currently written, kicks people off the SNAP program,” said Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, the committee’s top Democrat, who called it an “ideological attack” on SNAP. It would create “giant, untested bureaucracies at the state level” lacking the money needed for meaningful job training, he said.

About 2 million people — particularly in low-income working families with children — would receive less or lose benefits altogether, the liberal-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said in an analysis. A few would receive higher benefits, due to changes in how earnings are counted, but the net effect would still be a significant cut overall.

At $70 billion a year, food stamps are about three-quarters of spending in the Farm Bill, which also pays for crop subsidies, farm credit and land conservation. The bill cuts food stamp spending by $17.1 billion over 10 years, the Congressional Budget Office estimates.

The committee approved the bill on a party line vote, but its future is murky. Even if the full House approves it, the Senate Agriculture Committee plans to write a bipartisan bill. In the past, an alliance of rural and urban lawmakers with different priorities has pushed the Farm Bill through Congress.

It’s worth remembering that 43 percent of SNAP participants live in a household where someone works. Rules already require participants to meet work requirements unless exempt because of age, disability or another reason. Able-bodied adults without dependents – ABAWDs in government jargon -- 18 to 49 can receive benefits for three months but after that must work or be in training. 

The House bill requires all work-capable adults aged 18 to 59 who are not disabled or caring for a child under 6 to demonstrate every month they are working or in job-training 20 hours a week.

Critics see punitive and racial overtones in the bill.

“The images of `able-bodied’ men not working are of African American men,” Rep. David Scott, Democrat of Georgia, said at the hearing.

“I guarantee you, if all the people who were on food stamps were white, there wouldn’t be this,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The House bill is an embarrassment, as was the Trump administration’s plan to begin distributing non-perishable items in “harvest boxes” to replace some food stamp benefits. That plan was widely panned as unworkable and seems to have been scrapped.   

The House bill should meet a similar end. In this “most bounteous of nations,” the Senate should start over with a bill Democrats and Republicans can support.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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