Today, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to cut the food stamp program by $40 billion over the next 10 years. I’m just going to come out and say it: This is incredibly wrong.
The bright side: These cuts won’t actually happen. The chance that the Senate would agree to them is slim, and Obama has said he would veto the bill if it ever got to him [PDF]. Perhaps taking away food stamps will become one of those perpetually vexing but practically ineffectual initiatives (like killing Obamacare) that Republicans feel duty-bound to attempt, even if there’s no hope of success.
It’s perplexing, even to many conservatives, that Republicans feel so strongly about this. Henry Olson, writing in the conservative National Review points out that stripping benefits from the poor while ignoring handouts to the wealthy opens Republicans to the charge that they are the party of the rich. And this is arguably the issue that put Obama over the top in 2012. Olson writes:
I can see why conservatives would find the rise in food-stamp enrollment troubling. People who don’t need government benefits could always be tempted to take advantage of loosely structured government programs. Conservatives are rightly worried about this, and thus are eager to tighten eligibility standards and enforcement to ensure that people aren’t gaming the system. However, crop insurance provides even greater temptations to people with far less justification for government aid.
In the past, food-producer subsidies (like crop insurance) came bundled with food-eater subsidies (food stamps) in one bill. But this year the House separated the two in order to cut the latter without holding up the former. It’s true that the food stamp program has grown every year, but Olson points out that cutting crop insurance would save far more than the proposed cuts to food stamps.
The number of people on food stamps has risen a lot since 2007. Republicans frequently point out that 1 in 7 Americans are now on the program, and there are some freeloaders in there — like the lobster-eating surfer that Fox News made semi-famous.
But food stamp rolls swelled for a good reason. The economy tanked (remember?) and about 1 in 7 Americans can’t get enough to eat on a regular basis (does that number sound familiar?). Moreover, there aren’t that many freeloaders out there: Most people get off food stamps pretty quickly, as this graph from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows.
The Center has also shown that food stamps are the safety net holding a lot of people from falling into poverty:
The other reason this vote is such a face-palm is that food stamps are an incredibly effective form of economic stimulus. When you bail out big corporations, they immediately lock up a lot of that money in the bank. But when you give money to the poor, they spend it, boosting a diverse array of local merchants (who then, in turn, have more to spend and are more likely to hire, etc.).
As Evan Soltas put it in the notorious socialist rag Bloomberg News:
If the U.S. wants milder recessions in the future, its most effective fiscal policy options are food stamps, Temporary Aid for Needy Families and unemployment insurance.
Is it too much to ask for a little sober policymaking from the House? Better not answer that.