Is Congress cruel? Greg Kaufmann, author of “This Week in Poverty” for The Nation, thinks so: “Congress continues to pummel low-income people with increasing ferocity. I would like to know what you think can be done to confront and change this kind of cruelty and shortsightedness.”
He’s referring to Congress’ recently proposed cuts to food stamps, the food aid program serving 1 in 7 Americans now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Kaufmann lambasted Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, whose failed farm bill proposed just 0.5 percent in cuts to food stamps to eliminate “waste, fraud and abuse.”
Those nebulous words would have meant “cruel” cuts of $90 a month in benefits for about 500,000 households. But SNAP grew by two-and-a-half times that in the last year, even as the economy recovered. SNAP now serves more than 47.5 million people, compared to 27.7 million in January 2008. Rough estimate: If 5 million people enrolled in SNAP because of the economy, where was Kaufmann when the other 15 million were supposedly starving to death in 2008?
If Senate cuts weren’t bad enough, Kaufmann says Republicans now have gone to “a new level of violence” in stripping food stamps from the farm bill. But food stamp appropriations aren’t tied to the Sept. 30 deadline to pass the farm bill. While it’s almost certain Republicans will be looking to overhaul the program—if they don’t settle for status quo like they did with farm subsidies—no benefits end if Congress does nothing.
Kaufmann also said just one cent on every dollar of SNAP is lost to fraud. But data for that one cent are from 2008, before the program grew by 70 percent. And if he read closely, he would have seen that one cent is only the fraud through “trafficking,” or liquidating benefits for cash.
For Kaufmann and those who think government can solve poverty, everyone living paycheck to paycheck is “at risk” and should be given federally funded wiggle room. People like Kaufman endorse the “safety net” while encouraging—even pushing—those teetering to quit trying and just jump. He’s right that benefits can be somewhat meager—about $4.45 per day. But Kaufmann decries shortcomings of programs that must work from formulas, not individual situations. And when he sees benefits failing the truly needy on the individual level, suddenly the formula isn’t being pushed enough.
Kaufmann has a point, though: Cutting programs without changing the charity culture can cause more harm than good. Conservatives in their comfy suburbs shouldn’t decry government spending if they aren’t willing to devote some time to helping those in poor areas—an easy way to end welfare-encouraged economic segregation.
The food stamp program is bloated. That much is certain. But conservatives can use the doctrine of individual responsibility as an excuse to withhold a helping hand from willing recipients. And liberals can fight hard to have government take care of their neighbors. Neither is right.