It happened yesterday. The House voted, 217 to 210, for a Republican bill to cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by $39 billion over ten years. That number is above and beyond the approximately $20 billion in cuts the House GOP unsuccessfully sought in June. The left-leaning Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), citing the Congressional Budget Office, estimates that yesterday’s bill would drop nearly 4 million low-income Americans, including some 170,000 veterans (!), from the food assistance program.
Americans who would lose assistance in 2014 include, according to the CBPP; some 1.7 million childless, unemployed adults, whose income averages around “22 percent of the poverty line (about $2,500 a year for a single individual),” over 2 million families and low-income seniors “who have gross incomes or assets modestly above the federal SNAP limits but disposable income…below the poverty line,” and unemployed parents (including their children) who cannot find a job in an economy with 7.3 percent unemployment. Other details of the legislation are particularly egregious, including provisions that would lead to 210,000 schoolchildren losing their free meals due to connected eligibility, and Section 139 that would incentivize states to drop participants because they could “keep half of the federal savings from cutting people off SNAP and use the funds for any purpose.”
At the same time the House is sticking with their summer effort to preserve, and theoretically increase, agricultural subsidies to the tune of $23 billion a year.
Jonathan Chait highlights this dichotomy of priorities for the modern Republican Party:
It’s the juxtaposition of the two programs that so clearly exposes the party’s agenda. Anti-government ideology can justify even the most vicious cuts to the safety net. It can’t justify the massive socialist scheme that is agriculture policy. And, to be fair, conservative intellectuals generally don’t justify agriculture socialism. But the Republican Party certainly does.
Obama has attacked the GOP farm-subsidy bill for spending too much. Here is the one chunk of social spending where Republicans are not only failing to issue hostage threats to secure the cuts they demand, they are also refusing to cut spending as much as Barack Obama asks. And the program they pick to defend is, on the substantive merits, the most unjustifiable program of any significant scale in the federal budget.
To be fair, this juxtaposition is increasingly under attack from some on the right, including Henry Olsen at National Review (which Chait links to) who describes the focus on cutting SNAP as “the most baffling political move of the year.” Of course these attacks are not so much emanating from a place of sympathy for food-insecure Americans, but more because Republicans “have suffered for years from the stereotype that they are heartless Scrooge McDucks […].” Knocking four million low-income adults, their children and the elderly is not exactly kryptonite to the perception that the GOP doesn’t care about non-wealthy America.
The GOP has it’s stated justifications, that the cuts are necessary because of rampant fraud, waste, and abuse in the program. Yet instead of tuning into Fox News specials featuring some dippy surfer dude, people actually interested in SNAP fraud and abuse should read the USDA’s most recent audit on food stamp trafficking. They would find that the national rate of trafficking accounts for a little over one cent per dollar redeemed in benefits. If that qualifies as “rampant,” then Republicans would should have been reaching for the thesaurus to find harsher words for the almost four cent per dollar trafficking rate in 1993. Furthermore, I find it odd that supposed unacceptable levels of waste in the food stamp program justifies such inhumane austerity when the payment error rate in SNAP is far less than other programs. If food stamps’ 3.8 percent improper payment rate (which is mostly caseworker error) is an ominous portent of American dependency, what brave Republican will stand up and call for slashing the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which has a error rate of 22.7 percent? Who among the GOP will stand athwart the tide of shiftless elder Americans benefiting from higher payment errors in Medicare Part A (8.5 percent) and Medicare Advantage (7.1 percent)?
I won’t be holding breath for those condemnations, and neither should you. The truth is that SNAP functions much like you would expect it to as an entitlement for those in poverty. When poverty increases, so does SNAP participation. This is especially true during economic downturns. It is, as the CBPP writes, a program that “expands when the economy weakens and contracts when the economy recovers.” Of course the context for how SNAP actually works, or the efficacy of these programs in general, doesn’t appear to be the point of contention for most conservatives. As is apparent with their new replacement plan for the Affordable Care Act, and the aforementioned support of agricultural subsidies, this isn’t about making responsible budgetary decision. While their objections may represent a philosophical objection to the role of government, their grievance isn’t embedded in some Lockean sense of negative liberty. These votes are firmly ensconced in the more simplistic, and derogatory, distaste for spending money to help low-income Americans, period.