Working hard and still hungry

December 18, 2012

Elizabeth Schulte reports on Republican attempts to slash funding for food stamps.

WHAT DO workers at McDonald's, Wal-Mart and any number of other multibillion-dollar corporations have in common?

Food stamps.

For millions of workers in low-wage America, food stamps--now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)--are all that stands between their family and hunger.

Despite this, Republican lawmakers have taken aim at the program during recent discussions about how to avert the so-called "fiscal cliff"--the end-of-year deadline Congress imposed on itself for coming up with deficit reduction measures, or automatic cuts will kick in.

No social program is off the table and no cut is too deep in Washington's crusade for cutting the deficit. As House Majority Leader Eric Cantor told the Wall Street Journal: "What we need to be able to do is to demonstrate that that is the better way for the people of this country. Get the fiscal house in order, come to grips with the fact that promises have been made that, frankly, are not going to be kept for many...the math doesn't lie."

Large numbers of Americans work full time and still qualify for food stamps
Large numbers of Americans work full time and still qualify for food stamps

The Republicans say the government has to unload the burden of "pricey" and wasteful spending in order to balance the federal budget. "[T]his program has been growing out of control at an incredible rate, and there are a lot of people receiving benefits who do not qualify and should not receive them," Sen. Jeff Sessions said in an interview on CNN's Starting Point earlier this month.

Sessions "represents" the state of Alabama, where 20 percent of the population depends on food stamps.

Actually, he is right about one thing--food stamp use is increasing. Because workers need them to feed their families.

THE SNAP program grew to $76 billion in 2011, double what it was three years before. Of the almost 46 million people who rely on SNAP, 75 percent are families with children. And this number could easily be much higher if everyone who was eligible for help took part in the program.

Many of the people who depend on food stamps have jobs and families. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, nearly half of households with children that received SNAP benefits in 2010 had at least one family member working.

A recent one-day strike by fast-food workers in New York City illustrated this reality, as workers told their stories of living perilously close to the edge of hunger. "I qualify for food stamps, but my husband doesn't want me to use them," said Pamela Waldron, who makes just $7.75 an hour at KFC. "There are other people who need them more who don't even have jobs."

To add insult to injury, many workers who need food stamps in order to make ends meet work for large multimillion-dollar companies, which continue to make huge profits during the economic crisis, in part because of how little they pay. According to a July report by the National Employment Law Project (NELP), two-thirds of low-wage workers work for large companies that employ more than a hundred workers--companies like Wal-Mart and McDonald's that are hardly hurting during the recession.

The NELP report notes that out of the 50 largest employers of low-wage workers, "92 percent were profitable last year; 78 percent have been profitable for the last three years; 75 percent have higher revenues now than before the recession; 73 percent have higher cash holdings; and 63 percent have higher operating margins (a measure of profitability)."

These companies thrive on low wages, and they have the federal government to thank for helping to keep them that way. The federal minimum wage has stagnated at $7.25 since 2009, and according to the NELP study, its value today is 30 percent lower than it was in 1968.

So while Republicans try to tell food stamp recipients that they need to tighten their belts and stop wasting scarce government resources, they might do better to go straight to the source of the misery--and target the companies that pay their workers so little that they qualify for food stamps.

Don't hold your breath for that--not that you were likely to be. After all, the policies of the Washington establishment during the Great Recession--tax breaks for corporations and the rich while imposing austerity on workers and the poor--created the situation where programs like food stamps are needed more than ever.

THE DEPICTION of the food stamps program as a bloated government handout is a twisted fantasy to begin with. To even qualify for food stamps, a family's net income must be less than the poverty line, which came to just $18,500 a year--or $1,545 a month--for a family of three in 2012.

The average monthly allowance from food stamps comes to a little over $130 a month per person--or about $4 a day.

Yet for many working families, this $4 can make all the difference.

And for some families, it means everything. There is a growing minority for whom food stamps are their only source of income. According to data collected by the New York Times in 2010, about 6 million Americans who receive food stamps report that they have no other income.

"Their numbers were rising before the recession as tougher welfare laws made it harder for poor people to get cash aid, but they have soared by about 50 percent over the past two years," reported the Times. "About one in 50 Americans now lives in a household with a reported income that consists of nothing but a food stamp card."

Despite all the obstacles, the SNAP program manages to help prevent millions of workers' families from falling into deeper poverty. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), "For a family of three with one wage-earner who works at $10 an hour, SNAP increases the family's take-home income by roughly 20 to 50 percent, depending on the number of hours worked."

Yet once again, it is the target for cutbacks.

And once again, some politicians are trying to use racism to vilify the people who are most in need. In January, Newt Gingrich, then running for the Republican presidential nomination, volunteered to speak before the NAACP and "talk about why the African American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps."

Not to be outdone, the "centrist" Republican candidate Mitt Romney put forward a slightly less overtly racist promise--but only slightly--to "end a culture of dependency and restore a culture of good, hard work."

The racist stereotype of people who are "satisfied with food stamps" flies in the face of the actual statistics. Some 43 percent of SNAP participants are white, 33 percent are African American, 19 percent are Hispanic, 2 percent are Asian, and 2 percent are Native American.

And despite Gingrich's attempt to portray Barack Obama as the "food stamp president," those numbers don't add up either. The sharp rise in participation in the SNAP program began with George W. Bush, not Barack Obama.

When he made his claims, Gingrich was cribbing from an old playbook, one he used as House Speaker during the Clinton administration to try to push through draconian cuts in welfare and other social services. While Gingrich's racist attack on poverty programs made him one of the most unpopular politicians in history, he did win many of the cuts he argued for, including food stamps--thanks to Bill Clinton.

In the spirit of compromise with hard-line Republicans--sound familiar?--Bill Clinton ushered in terrible cuts to this vital government program. Using the mantra of "personal responsibility," Clinton pushed through welfare reform legislation that put punitive restrictions on food stamps, including barring undocumented immigrants from receiving them and slapping a time limit on benefits for single recipients who don't work for at least 20 hours a week or enroll in a work program. As a result, food stamps use hit an all-time low.

In just a few months, the Clinton administration accomplished many of the cuts that one of the biggest haters of Great Society programs, Ronald Reagan, spent years dreaming about.

You don't have to be a math genius to see the warped priorities behind Washington's current debate over the budget. Programs that feed hungry people are on the chopping block, while they still talk about reforming the tax code to lower rates on wealthy corporations.

Talk about your "culture of dependency."

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