GOP's hot plan: Cut food for poor people!

Cruel party insists on massive SNAP cuts in farm bill and push for immigration reform to be as harsh as possible

Published June 18, 2013 12:45PM (EDT)

  (AP/Susan Walsh)
(AP/Susan Walsh)

The White House, bless them, has threatened to veto the Farm Bill if Congress passes the House version of the legislation, which cuts $2 billion a year from the food stamp program, instead of the Senate version, which contains a mere $400 million in annual cuts.

The White House would prefer, if we are in a cutting mood, to cut direct subsidies to farmers and crop insurance, two longtime mainstays of the farm bill that have basically totally fucked up our entire food system for decades but that also have made a few giant food companies quite rich. Here is how House Republicans made their bill:

The bill, which costs nearly $100 billion a year, would save a total of about $4 billion annually, including the food stamp cuts. It would eliminate some subsidies while creating others, raising subsidy levels for several crops. It would expand the current crop insurance program and also create a new type of crop insurance that would kick in sooner than the paid insurance farmers have now.

Good one, guys. Good policy, good attempt at deficit reduction, good governing.

Food stamp enrollment has increased dramatically since the 1990s. To conservatives, the increase is prima facie evidence of fraud and excessive generosity. Fraud, abuse and accidental overpayments, though, are at historic lows. The increase was intensified by the economic crisis, but it began with welfare reform. Clinton's reform package imposed lifetime caps on benefits and was effectively "the end of welfare as we know it," just like he promised. In response, people who formerly received cash benefits now had to rely on other support. Like the food stamp program, which was cut and then un-cut, because it's also a boon to agribusiness.

The USDA's Economic Research Service (which ... has an online magazine called Amber Waves, available at the iTunes and Google Play stores) explains that SNAP has basically supplanted cash benefits:

Disabled and elderly households continue as stable components of the SNAP population. But households combining SNAP with cash welfare have declined. When welfare reform was enacted in 1996, about 37 percent of households getting SNAP benefits also received cash assistance and only 10 percent had no other source of income besides SNAP. In FY 2010, only 8 percent of SNAP households were receiving cash assistance and nearly 20 percent had no other source of income. In today's difficult economic climate, SNAP is increasingly becoming the mainstay for households with no other income sources.

The merits of replacing direct cash transfers with benefits designed only for the purchase of certain approved food items can certainly be debated, but no one in Congress is currently proposing cutting SNAP in order to increase funding to old-fashioned "welfare." They're just cutting it.

There are a lot of people on food stamps because there are a lot of poor people. A minuscule percentage of SNAP recipients live on incomes above the poverty line. (I also don't think most members of Congress in either party are aware that "the poverty line" is $23,550 for a household of four.) The federal government spent $81 billion on SNAP in fiscal year 2012, with 92 percent of that going directly to beneficiaries. The Defense Department spent $67.3 billion (or maybe $74 billion) on 188 F-22s that asphyxiate their pilots. (The F-35 comes in at an affordable $391.2 billion.) Comparing totally unrelated government expenditures can be a facile exercise, but those b-numbers often need some context. We'll spend almost any amount on an unnecessary war plane designed to maintain our air superiority over an assortment of potential enemies whose most likely weapons will be capitalism or improvised explosives. Helping poor people buy food? That's where we draw the line.

Here's how the food stamps program ended up as a part of the farm bill: Rural areas, like small states, have disproportionate power in the federal government. But fewer Americans live the storied agrarian life than ever before. Small-state politicians realized that attaching food stamps to the farm subsidies was a great way to ensure liberal support for the whole farm bill every time it came up, for a generation. (Don't scoff, this is how politics is "supposed" to work.) And indeed it worked for many years, until modern Republicans decided (as they have so often lately) that they no longer cared for the polite older arrangement. Now they'd like SNAP funding in a separate bill, so that they can not pass it.

The Republican war on giving poor people money to buy food has been going on for a few years now. Republicans (and new Bloomberg View columnist Megan McArdle) complain that food stamps are making poor people too fat. Some states already bar former drug offenders from receiving SNAP (this has worked out really well as public policy, as I'm sure you can imagine) and Louisiana Sen. David Vitter would like to also prevent other ex-felons from receiving benefits, so that people who once committed crimes starve or else find themselves forced to commit more crimes in order to eat.

Why obsess over cutting SNAP? Because Republicans are simply convinced, all evidence aside, that the American welfare system is too generous, and that a little government cruelty is just the kick in the pants impoverished people need to get up and get jobs as computer programmers or something. Intentional cruelty is basically a Republican policy goal, as the immigration debate is also showing us. Republicans are willing to provide a "path to citizenship" to undocumented immigrants, but only on the condition that the path be incredibly expensive, full of traps and as unpleasant as possible. Right now, most of the movement is on healthcare. House Republicans want not only to deny immigrants subsidized care, but also to force them to purchase unsubsidized private insurance. Yes, it's a wicked parody of the Obamacare mandate. That'll show them!

Marco Rubio, the man who still can't seem to decide whether he actually wants to be responsible for an immigration bill, has a fun proposal to continue punishing immigrants well after they become legal residents or possibly even citizens:

In the Senate, Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has endorsed an amendment to a comprehensive immigration bill he helped negotiate that would deny health benefits to immigrants for five years after they become legal residents — two years after they would be eligible to become citizens under the legislation.

The GOP may be surprised to hear this, as they busy themselves gutting it, but immigrants do not come here for our generous welfare state. Spending for the undocumented made up a whopping 1.4 percent of all healthcare spending in the U.S. over the last decade.One fun side effect of making immigrants ineligible for subsidized healthcare is that that will obviously give employers an incentive to hire immigrants over native-born workers, precisely the stated reason many Republicans have for opposing immigration to begin with. But punishment is the most important policy goal of all for the modern GOP.

By Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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