The “let them eat cuts” Congress

October 3, 2013

With Tea Partying Republicans forcing a government shutdown, Elizabeth Schulte reports on what Washington has in store for the poor in the era of endless austerity.

THE NUTRITION Reform and Work Opportunity Act.

It's a nice-sounding name for cruel legislation that would consign millions of people to hunger and malnutrition, where the only "opportunity" is for Republicans to carry out another attack on workers and the poor.

In September, the House of Representatives voted to cut the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps, by $40 billion over the next 10 years. Republicans say they're willing to go to any length to eliminate so-called wasteful big government spending--in the interest of getting the American economy back on its feet, of course. And that includes sentencing millions to a future of hunger and poverty.

This week, the House Republicans proved just how fanatical they are about stopping any reform to the U.S. health care system--even the fundamentally flawed and far-from-radical Affordable Care Act. They decided they'd rather see the federal government shut down than give up on their plans to delay the health care law from taking effect.

The let-them-eat-cuts Congress
The let-them-eat-cuts Congress (Eric Ruder | SW)

Yes, the Republicans were willing to take that "risk"--though, of course, the "risk" is all ours--when the federal government shut down, some 9 million mothers and infants who rely on Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC, had to figure out another way to eat.

Back in September, when they were preparing to slash food stamps, Tennessee Rep. Stephen Fincher made the Republicans' intensions clear when he spoke in favor of the bill. "The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat," said the Tea Party Republican, quoting from the Bible.

Fincher was summing up the "Let them eat cuts" attitude that permeates the halls of Congress--most obviously among Republicans, but also Democrats, who accept the need for drastic reductions in spending on crucial government programs, but disagree about how deep to go.

Fincher "represents" the state of Tennessee, where poverty and hunger wracks its large, rural population. In Dyer County, for example, more than 19 percent of residents were considered "food insecure" in 2011, according to the food bank network Feeding America.

But the Bible-quoting Congressman from Tennessee doesn't hate all "big government" programs. Fincher happens to be the second-largest recipient of farm subsidies among all members of Congress.

In other words, while he's preaching the gospel of hard work to the undeserving poor, Fincher is squirreling away millions in corporate welfare for himself.

Since 1973, food stamps funding has been included in a farm bill that is passed every five years. This year, however, House Republicans weren't satisfied with a $20 billion cut in funding that was supposed to be included in the legislation, so it separated out the food stamps elements of the bill in July. Now that the farm bill--with its billions in lucrative subsidies--is separate, the House is carving even deeper cuts in the SNAP program.

The House proposal would require people between the ages of 18 and 50 without minor children find a job or enroll in a work-training program in order to receive benefits. The bill would also strictly limit the time that people can receive food stamps to three months over a three-year period--state governments would be barred from extending the deadline.

"This bill makes getting Americans back to work a priority again for our nation's welfare programs," said House Speaker John Boehner. As if going hungry makes it easier to find a job.

WHEN REPUBLICANS complain about recent increases in SNAP funding, they claim that it's another bloated big government program that needs to be kept in check.

And they're right on one count. Food stamps use has increased--not because of "bloated government spending," but because hunger has increased.

As the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) notes, the main factors driving increased use of food stamps historically isn't "waste" or "cheating," but increases in poverty and the economy. According to the CBPP report:

After unemployment insurance, SNAP historically has been the most responsive federal program in assisting families and communities during economic downturns. The recent downturn was no exception. SNAP grew rapidly between 2008 and 2011, reflecting the rising numbers of Americans who lost their jobs and the rising number who were struggling to make ends meet.

Most people don't need a study to tell them that during economic hard times, the government should provide services for those affected by the crisis. But maybe the Republicans do--since the first thing they think about is cutting services to the most vulnerable people in society.

Two weeks before the House voted to cut food stamps funding, the U.S. Agriculture Department (USDA), which administers the SNAP program, reported that 17.6 million households didn't have enough to eat at some point last year. The numbers have changed little since 2008, when the economy hit the low point of the official recession--but they are much worse than they were a decade ago.

The reality is that food stamps--despite the average benefit being just $133.41 a month, or about $4.45 a day, last year--often provide the thin barrier holding many families out of destitution.

Some 47 million people currently rely on food stamps, and according to the Census Bureau, food stamps helped to bring some 4 million people above the poverty line. According to the USDA, most people who do participate in the food stamp program--72 percent--are families with children. More than a quarter of recipients live in households with seniors or people with disabilities.

In fact, the bigger problem is that not enough people are signing up for food stamps. According to the USDA, about a quarter of people who are eligible don't get them. The percentage is much higher among the elderly.

If the Republicans' food stamp cuts make it through to law, you can forget about more people signing up--an estimated 4 million current recipients could lose benefits next year, and another 3 million are projected to be dropped each year after that.

The Republicans' food stamps bill also places harsh restrictions on people getting benefits from other government programs--and polices their behavior, such as provisions requiring that recipients be tested for drug use.

The three-month limit on benefits that the Republicans want to strictly enforce was originally part of the 1996 welfare "reform" legislation that Democratic President Bill Clinton signed into law. Since then, the federal government has allowed states to waive the rule during times of high unemployment.

The limit was punitive in 1996, but it's even worse in the light of today's economy. As the CBPP pointed out in a report in August, the limits were supposed to be accompanied by a job-training program, but that was never properly funded:

Few states operate workfare or training programs for these individuals (either at all or on more than a very small scale). As a result, most of these jobless adults are simply cut off SNAP after three months, no matter how much they want to work, how hard they are looking for a job, and how willing they are to accept any available job and participate in a work or training program...Only five states committed to providing a job training or workfare opportunity to all individuals subject to the cutoff in 2012.

The 1996 law included provisions for states to apply for temporary waivers on limits if they could prove high unemployment in their area. Today, Republicans want to uphold the rule--without exceptions.

The food stamps cuts are still being debated in Congress, but some state governments are already moving to cut people off SNAP. Oklahoma and Kansas plan to cut adults without dependents who aren't working or enrolled in a job training for 20 or more hours a week. Wisconsin plans to enact this provision in July, bringing to eight the number of states to make this move.

THE REPUBLICAN House's vote to cut to food stamps came just a few days after more terrible news for U.S. workers, when the U.S. Census Bureau released data on poverty in America.

The report found that while unemployment has decreased--reaching a recent low of 7.8 percent last year, down from 9.1 percent in 2011--poverty has not fallen. Some 15 percent of Americans, or 46.5 million people, live below the official poverty line--a number that has little changed from 2011, during a supposed economic recovery.

Median household income also stayed about the same from 2011 to 2012, at $51,017. If you look over the period of a decade, the decline is much worse--median household income, after adjusting for inflation, fell almost $7,500 from 2000 to 2012, for an 11.6 percent decline.

In other words, the decrease in the unemployment rate doesn't mean people are finding jobs that will support them and their families. On the contrary, these numbers indicate that people are staying in jobs where they might go for years without receiving raises--or are finding new jobs where they're paid less than what they got before.

Americans are feeling the pinch, and there are growing contradictions between the promise of the American Dream and the way working-class Americans actually live.

So while a recent Washington Post-Miller Center poll showed that many people still thought opportunities were possible through hard work and education, they had a dimmer view of their actual prospects. Almost two-thirds of people express concerns about covering their family's basic living expenses, and one in three say they worried about money all or most of the time.

When asked how likely they thought it was that they'd get a raise or find a better-paying job in the next five years, more than half said they doubted it. Half of the people polled said they have taken part in some sort of training to improve their skills in the past 12 months, with 72 percent reporting that it hasn't made much of a difference in their wages.

Meanwhile, the recession is an increasingly distant memory for Corporate America. Almost all U.S. companies have returned to profitability, sometimes at a record level, in large part because of "streamlining efforts"--in other words, layoffs and cuts to workers' wages and benefits.

You know--the kind of cost-cutting measures that drive workers to depend on food stamps.

To add injury to injury, Congress' response has amounted to little more than lectures about the need to "tighten our belts"--and when they say "our," they mean you, not them.

THE DEMOCRATS have promised to fight the Republicans' cruel attack on food stamps. But they don't disagree with the principle of cutting the social safety net in general. This has played out several times in the Obama administration's deals with Republicans over the federal budget.

Regardless of what happens with the current attack on SNAP, there will be deep cuts in November, when a provision in the 2009 fiscal stimulus bill, passed during Obama's first month in office, that suspended the work requirement expires. And this says nothing of the budget cuts affecting primarily poor workers that have already gone into effect, with the quiet acquiescence of the Democrats.

As a result of the budget sequester, $85 billion in automatic cuts to federal spending went into effect on March 1. A few examples of the cuts illustrate just who Washington wants to pay for the crisis.

Head Start, which provides early childhood education and other services, such as parenting workshops and health screenings for low-income children and their families, was one victim of Washington's belt-tightening. Some 57,000 poor children will no longer be able to use Head Start services.

Federally funded school programs for poor communities and mentally and physically handicapped kids were also targets of the sequester. Jeff Bisek, the schools superintendent for the White Earth Indian reservation in Minnesota, told Reuters that the district tried to make up the shortfall this year by scaling back--on tutoring and a program for teenage mothers.

According to the CBPP, state and local housing agencies will be forced to cut the number of low-income families getting Housing Choice Vouchers by roughly 140,000 by early 2014. This will mean more people ending up in the ranks of the homeless.

Also on the chopping block: seniors who count on food assistance from the Meals On Wheels program. At the Osceola Council on Aging in Florida, sequestration cut 20 percent of its funding--so the council is cutting the Thursday meal. In protest, seniors gathered last month and wrote messages on paper plates to send to Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson. "Your plate is full, what about mine?" 79-year-old Betty Bash wrote on her plate.

Workers are already bearing the brunt of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s--and the only answer Congress has for them is cuts, cuts and more cuts.

Maybe it's time to start cutting from the top.

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