"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Topics: Poverty, Food Stamps, SNAP, Farm Bill, Barack Obama, Joel Berg, Charity, organizing, Republicans, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Editor's Picks, Elections News, Media News, Business News, News, Politics News
Following an initial Senate vote Monday night and a House vote last week, today the Senate is expected to pass a farm bill that cuts food stamps by over $8 billion in the next decade. The White House has signaled that President Obama will sign the bill, ending a two-year fight in which key Democrats and Republican disagreed over how much — but not whether – to cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
“Our political system is basically evil versus spineless now,” former Clinton USDA official Joel Berg told Salon following the House’s vote. Berg, the executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger and author of “All You Can Eat: How Hungry Is America?,” blasted White House “disingenuousness,” Republican “race-baiting,” media “class bias,” and progressive “weakness” for the ultimate outcome. “There is no mechanism now,” he argued, “to hold people accountable for shafting poor people.” A condensed version of our conversation follows.
The Associated Press described the ultimate deal as having “a mostly symbolic cut in food stamps.” Is that accurate?
It’s not accurate, and shows you in a few words virtually everything wrong with the American media today. It shows you class bias, reporters listing as a fact something that’s an opinion, it shows you lack of empathy.
If the reporter’s own mother was losing $90 of foods a month out of an already-meager allotment, or the reporter’s son or daughter, I very much doubt that reporter would describe that loss as merely symbolic. I don’t know that reporter thinks their own breakfast, their own lunch, or their own dinner is merely symbolic. This is real money coming out of the grocery carts of real families.
So why do you think it gets reported that way?
[There’s] a definite spin from the people supporting this bill to make that the party line: that this is a small, meaningless little closing of a loophole. And I think reporters who don’t do their homework enough just accept it …
In general, there is a dismissiveness towards the lives of low-income people … and a lack of understanding what losing $90 a month would mean in a family’s life.
So what will be the impact of this cut?
About 1.7 million people will lose an average of $90 a month from already meager benefits. And those people will be far more likely to go hungry, far less likely to be able to feed their families.
What will be the most serious consequences of that?
They’re going to go hungry. And ironically, they may become obese because they can afford less healthy food. You know, in America we’re sort of socialized into thinking there’s going to be some Frank Capra-esque, you know, happy ending — somehow some big donors come through with the money and make it work, and people won’t suffer. That’s not what happens in reality.
And it’s important to note that this cut comes just a few weeks after another massive — even more massive — cut of $11 billion over the next two years, that affects all 48 million recipients of SNAP benefits, that lost about an average of about $38 a month. And so this really is a one-two punch that for some folks is just absolutely devastating. And it’s not like they were living high off the hog to begin with …
A fairly widely quoted study that came out a few weeks ago [found] that emergency room visits for diet-related things like low blood sugar, other things like that, spiked in the last week of a month. And the belief was it was because SNAP benefits had run out for the month.
The food banks and other organizations you represent, what are you hearing from them about the impact of the cuts so far?
For the Nov. 1 cuts, there was a huge spike in people going to them that they couldn’t handle. And they’re bracing for even bigger cuts. And that there’s no way on god’s green earth they can make up for this …
I’ve calculated that at most, every soup kitchen, food pantry, food bank, food rescue group in America provides about $5 billion worth of food. And the last cut was about $5 billion a year in the next year. So these cuts really dwarf the charitable sector …
In general, charities give out about one-twentieth the amount of food that the federal nutrition safety net does.
The Washington Post editorialized that what they called the “Heat and Eat” “loophole” was something that “gives an otherwise vital component of the social safety net a black eye” and so it should be closed by Congress. What do you make of that argument?
It infuriates me, that we live in a country with tens of thousands of actual loopholes that benefit the ultra-rich, [whereas] this is a provision authorized by law, perfectly legal, perfectly sensible, that governors of both parties have utilized. We’ve already established that low-income people get too little money in SNAP, and this is a perfectly sensible way to get more money, more food, to people who have too little food …
The food stamps application process and benefit determination process is extraordinarily complicated … If Congress didn’t think that [“Heat and Eat”] was an elegant way of doing it, then fine, move the $8.6 billion out of that provision, and move it into another provision.
That’s basically a fabricated excuse. And it’s a smokescreen to obfuscate the fact that they’re taking food away from hungry families. And they also picked the politically least defensible one, the one they could mischaracterize the easiest, and affected the least states … It’s a very cynical depiction …
The implication somehow this is fraud, or the families don’t deserve it, or it’s misuse – I’d really urge them to go meet some of the families who are relying on this and try to make that argument to them.
One of the key Democrats who’s from a state that will be particularly affected by this, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, said in support of the bill that it “proves that by working across party lines we can reform programs to save taxpayer money while strengthening efforts to grow our economy.” Do you agree with any part of that?
I agree it’s important to do that. I don’t agree that’s what the bill has done …
The Democrats should have proposed an increase in SNAP in the farm bill … but when the Democrats get out of the box with $4 billion in cuts …
That’s like red meat to the Tea Party and the right, that – oh, they’ve got to [push] 10 times that to be taken seriously.
So you know, unfortunately I believe Debbie Stabenow started a race to the bottom … She’s been in the Senate since 2000 – I know because in my free time, private citizen, I helped volunteer to help Al Gore win and help elect her – [she] never mentioned it before. Never seemed upset on it before. And all of the sudden, it’s a problem — when she needed some cuts to win over the Republicans …
George W. Bush proposed a billion dollars in cuts to SNAP, and virtually all these people were aghast at how horrible it is. For them to then turn around and justify cuts that are [eight] times as large as what George W. Bush proposed is a little hard to swallow. I do think our political system is basically evil versus spineless now.
What is the lesson of the fact that Democrats have been pushing to cut food stamps?
The lesson is that we need campaign finance reform. Corporate agribusinesses have donated over $600 million to federal campaigns …
And the lesson from my side is that we need to build a true grass roots movement. You know there are 47 million people or so on the SNAP program. That’s a number larger than the membership of the NRA and Handgun Control League, AFL-CIO and every anti-union group, and you know, NARAL and the National Right to Life League … But low-income people are not currently organized as a serious political force. And for us advocates, it really should be a wakeup call that we can’t do the same old, same old, rely on old friends to help us. They will not. We’ve for too long argued on moral suasion, or the facts … That’s not enough. We need to develop political power and hold people accountable for what they are doing.
Looking back over the past several years … how much responsibility does the Obama administration have here?
The Constitution gives him a veto pen. If, you know, he couldn’t afford one because of sequestration, I’ll be glad to send him one. He did pledge to end child hunger in 2008 …
I did work for President Clinton, so I’m biased, but for six of his eight years President Clinton had zero houses of Congress, and he cut, you know, arguably stronger deals. For all of the people upset on the left that President Clinton eventually signed welfare reform into law, he vetoed two previous versions. And one of the reasons he vetoed it is because it would’ve destroyed the food stamps program …
I can’t understand why the position of the president, and the position of Democrats in Congress, [isn’t]: “If you want to have a discussion with us on this … we’re not going to take another penny out of food for hungry people.” …
They had key people on record that the president opposes bigger SNAP cuts. I don’t understand why he keeps signing things he opposes … I fail to understand either the moral stance they’re taking on this, or their practical political stance. That they keep seeming to draw lines in the sand that they then sort of cross. And the timing of this, to do this a few days after making the centerpiece of his State of the Union speech a reduction of inequality, is a little hard to understand as well.
They’ve done some excellent other things. You know, they’ve been generous in finding … to work in partnership with groups like mine. USDA has done an excellent job of removing barriers to access to the program …
But their legislative strategy — and what, you know, the president is going to say this is what I’m going to make or break my presidency on and stand on — has been, you know, disheartening at best.
Was it a mistake to essentially borrow money from the food stamp program before?
Oh yes. I was adamantly against it. When they said we’ll find the money later, I basically said that’s just not true … It’s more of the disingenuousness. And the president said, I’ll try to fix it later. He did put it in his budget, but never fought for it, never made it a negotiating point.
Similar[ly], Chuck Schumer implied the other day he was going to vote for the [farm] bill. He said I’ll try to find the money for the bill later.
If their main sort of off-the-record argument for doing this is, “The Democrats could lose the Senate … It’s only going to get worse if we don’t do this now” … Then, subsequently to say, “Oh by the way, we’ll fix it later.” is a really hard to believe strategy. No.
The original sin of the Democrats in all this is accepting the crazy notion that [to] pass anything in the Senate you need 60 votes …
[They] basically said, to pass this child nutrition bill in the Senate, we need to have food stamp cuts, because god forbid you go after all the corporate welfare in the bill. And then basically they pressured George Miller, Nancy Pelosi, said: You can’t even pass a bill through the House … You must take the Senate bill, because we must pass this … that was crazy to begin with …
Guess what? When it comes to poor people, the “later” never happens. The fix is never.
And we were told with this, “Oh it was supposed to be temporary, Joel; be reasonable.” Well, it was supposed to last as long as the need lasted. And there’s not been a broad-based recovery for low-income people. The tax cuts for the rich were supposed to be temporary and they extended it for people making up to $400,000 a year …
It really shows you how absolutely dysfunctional our entire political system is today. If the American people understood what was really going on, and really were asked their opinion — which would you prefer, cutting food to hungry families or, you know, some cotton plantation in Mississippi — food stamps ain’t that popular, but they’d rank a hell of a lot more than the corporate welfare.
Why is it … that in the end the cotton plantation in Mississippi wins out?
I don’t want to oversimplify stuff, but I do think it’s the money, the camp contributions, the messages to falsely convince people that that’s just good old family farmers, when our stuff is welfare. And … our current political environment where Republicans basically have a distaste for poor people, and Democrats have a fear of being even vaguely associated with standing up for them.
And I think that underpinning this is still the politics of race. And the politics of the race-baiting of not all Republicans … but many, or significant leaders. And I wrote a piece I think in DailyKos a few years ago when Newt Gingrich was doing his most egregious race-baiting on this behalf. And the belief that you’re sort of supporting the takers and non-white people are somehow less virtuous. And that’s certainly one of the underpinnings of that. And there are very few people in the Democratic Party who are willing to stand up to that.
And it also shows the weakness of the progressive movement … There is no mechanism now to hold people accountable for shafting poor people.
The politics of race that you’re suggesting around food stamps – how can that be defeated?
It would be great to have the president of the United States and Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi explain that the preponderance of people on the SNAP program always have been and continue to be white … You cannot win a discussion that you won’t have — and they’ve refused to have the discussion. You know, Mitt Romney attacked Obama three different times in the debates on SNAP to his face. Obama switched the topic. He did not defend the program once, even though his mother was able to go to work and go to nursing school because of it.
The people who are affected by this cut – would they be better off right now if the ’96 welfare reform bill had not passed?
I don’t have a simple answer to that, because I have a nuanced position on welfare reform … It is an issue that less than 10 percent of the low-income people in America even have cash assistance now. It makes it hard for them to get food. But low-income people do not want more welfare. They do not want more cash. They want more work. So what would be different if something happened, you know, differently nearly 20 years ago? I’m not sure. But I think welfare reform was mostly sort of working when Clinton was president, and since [his] presidency other people have used the tools in a negative manner.
And I think even he has said that one of his biggest mistakes as president was not pushing welfare reform before he pushed healthcare and his vision of welfare reform was a progressive way to move people out of poverty. And had that been implemented, people would actually be in better shape today.
The language in the bill, which restricts the spending of money on advertising the existence of food stamps – is that good policy?
No. It’s horrible policy … Their employee manual for Hill staffers and for new senators advertises to them how they can get their government healthcare. And so it’s hypocritical. It’s ridiculous.
That being said … it only relates to federal funds … If there are, you know, private foundations or other entities or corporations that want to advertise the program, they can and should. And I suppose some still will …
We almost ended hunger entirely in the ‘70s by creating an economy with more living wage jobs and a robust poverty safety net and anti-hunger safety net. And the reason we have that much hunger today is we’re doing precisely the opposite of what we know works. Because our politics is fundamentally broken.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)