Texas Gov. Rick Perry, left, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speak during a commercial break in a Republican presidential debate in Orlando, on September 22, 2011. (Photo: Chip Litherland / The New York Times)
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), otherwise known as food stamps, is one of the most efficient, effective, penny-pinching programs in today’s government-scape. Food stamps have cushioned the recession’s blow for the 45 million Americans that depend on them for daily meals. And we’re not talking government-subsidized caviar: On average, food stamp recipients can expect an allotment of $30 per week.
Plus, it’s a dream of a stimulus - every $5 in SNAP benefits generates nearly double that in economic activity.
However, as the race to 2012 builds and the crazies get crazier, the top GOP presidential hopefuls have turned on this all-star program with a vengeance.
In September, Rick Perry proclaimed a “Hunger Action Month,” expressing “deep concern” for his state’s hungry families. It was about time: Texas has the second-highest rate of food insecurity in the country. However, it appears that Perry staunchly opposes action to alleviate the problem.
Just a week and a half before his grand “awareness” proclamation, Perry trash-talked food stamps to a South Carolina luncheon audience. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary (the census showed that in 2010, 3.9 million Americans - almost half of them children - were boosted out of poverty by food stamps), Perry denied SNAP’s role as economic stimulus.
“Most Americans do not yearn to be dependent on government subsidies,” he said. “They want economic freedom, and economic freedom comes from work and wages, not welfare.”
Also on board with granting Americans the “economic freedom” to go hungry is Mitt Romney, who jumped on the pro-poverty bandwagon in late August as well. When asked what he thought of the food-stamps-as-stimulus question, Romney opined, “I think that there’s some folks like Tom Vilsack and President Obama himself that imagine that if you just throw money at people, that somehow that will make the economy better.”
Not to be outdone, Rick Santorum has been quick to remind voters that he was the first candidate to endorse Paul Ryan’s plan to transform food stamps into block grants, putting a cap on aid and leaving millions of hungry Americans without assistance. Early in the summer, he alleged that Obama is “pushing more people on food stamps,” presumably by providing them to people in need.
According to Santorum’s logic, by granting aid to the poorest of the poor, the SNAP program is making poverty practically irresistible. (Who wouldn’t want their family to live on $30 per week of groceries, given the chance?)
The tide of food-stamp hypocrisy rises even higher in Michele Bachmann’s corner. A late summer round of financial disclosures revealed that Bachmann has benefited heavily from federal aid over the years; her family farm, for example, received $260,000 in subsidies between 1995 and 2008. But that hasn’t stopped her from bashing subsidies for low-income Americans. Last fall, when then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi pointed out food stamps’ value as an economic stimulus, Bachmann countered, “This is why the Speaker needs to lose her gavel a few short days from now.”
What’s most terrifying about this wave of attacks on the poor is not the denial of facts (food stamps work - people buy food, stimulating domestic production and creating jobs), or the bizarrely simplistic ways in which the candidates have voiced their opposition. It’s that none of the candidates have presented a believable economic vision in which hunger is relieved by any other means: they’re simply denying the notion that government has a responsibility to support Americans’ well-being and security, negating the public good as a political priority. In this frame, poverty and hunger aren’t real problems to be confronted in the physical world; they’re conceptual nuisances to be wiped out with deafening rhetorical gymnastics.
It’s a revival of the Reagan-era “welfare queen” fiction, and the latest batch of GOPers are telling the tale with relish. Rep. Paul Ryan, the House’s superstar slasher, has called SNAP “rife with fraud,” pointing to it as a cesspool for taxpayer mooching. With food-stamp errors at their lowest rate ever, it’s a tough claim to defend - but “fraud” is a catchy theme, especially when poor folks are the alleged culprits, and the facts haven’t stopped Ryan from spreading the fallacy far and wide.
In summing up his drastic budget plan last spring, Ryan invoked a similar sentiment, warning, “We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls people to lives of complacencies and dependencies, into a permanent condition where they never get on their feet.”
Unless you’re a small rabbit or living in the early 19th century, it’s hard to imagine being lulled into complacency by $30 a week.
As the gruesome campaign theatrics continue, the problem persists. More than 75 percent of households receiving food stamps currently include children. Almost a third contain disabled people or senior citizens. Americans in their 50s are 80 percent more likely to be food-insecure than they were ten years ago - and 17 million children are now in the same boat.
In the face of the pro-hunger lobby, we must defend food stamps as not only a vital economic stimulus, but also a basic, public responsibility. For millions of Americans, food stamps are no hammock. They’re not even a safety net - they’re a lifejacket, and as Americans and human beings, we owe it to each other to keep this program alive and well.
Maya Schenwar is Truthout’s editor-in-chief and the author of Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better. Follow her on Twitter @mayaschenwar.
Previously, she was a senior editor and reporter at Truthout, writing on US defense policy, the criminal justice system, campaign politics, and immigration reform. Prior to her work at Truthout, Maya was contributing editor at Punk Planet magazine. She has also written for the Guardian, In These Times, Ms. Magazine, AlterNet, Z Magazine, Bitch Magazine, Common Dreams, the New Jersey Star-Ledger and others. She also served as a publicity coordinator for Voices for Creative Nonviolence. Maya is on the Board of Advisors at Waging Nonviolence.