Food stamp politics
“That hunger and malnutrition should persist in a land such as ours is embarrassing and intolerable.” So declared Richard Nixon in May 1969 in his now widely forgotten “Special Message to the Congress Recommending a Program to End Hunger in America.” In that document, he summoned the country to a new level of generosity and concern and laid out a series of strong legislative steps and executive actions, including a significant expansion of the food-stamps program.
While campaigning for the White House in 1968, Nixon did not focus on the existence of a serious hunger problem.
His conversion came as public calls to do something about hunger rose — driven, in part, by Sen. Robert Kennedy’s highly publicized trip to Mississippi in 1967 where he encountered nearly starving children and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s focus on hunger as part of the Poor People’s Campaign.
During the ’70s, another Republican leader, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, forged a partnership with George McGovern, the South Dakota Democrat defeated by Nixon in 1972. They helped pass legislation to improve the accessibility and anti-fraud provisions of the food-stamps program. For example, it eliminated a requirement that recipients buy food-stamp coupons, a prohibitive burden for the lowest-income Americans.
That kind of dedicated bipartisan commitment to ending hunger was light years ago in American politics — before President Ronald Reagan and, later, Speaker Newt Gingrich made attacking food stamps a prime Republican obsession, and certainly before moderate Republicans, a disappearing breed, lived in fear of making any move that might provoke a primary challenge from a Tea Party-supported candidate. The modern food-stamps program, built with Republican and Democratic support, succeeded in eliminating the most extreme pockets of hunger in parts of the country.
Today, the program remains an immensely important source of support for low-income families and children living below or near the poverty line. Still, some 50 million Americans live in households that cannot consistently afford enough food, even with the food-stamps program, now formally called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Come November, temporary increases for food-stamp aid approved in the 2009 economic recovery act are scheduled to expire, which would result in a loss of about $25 in monthly food stamps for a family of four. If anything, Washington should be allocating more money to address tremendous unmet needs.
Yet, every Republican on the House Agriculture Committee voted to approve an omnibus farm bill containing a $20 billion cut in food stamps over the next decade in the program’s $800 billion or so 10-year budget. While less devastating than turning the program into a capped block grant to the states, which the House Republicans have previously endorsed, the cut is nearly five times the reduction approved by the Democratic-controlled Senate Agriculture Committee, which already is too much.
The House bill’s cuts would end food-stamp assistance for nearly 2 million people, with the pain falling mainly on low-income working families with kids and older Americans, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. And as many as 210,000 children would lose access to free school lunches and breakfasts because eligibility for those meals is tied to their family’s receipt of food-stamp benefits.
“It is just not right,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. (no relation to George McGovern), before his amendment to strike the cut was defeated. Not a single Republican voted to approve it.
Dorothy Samuels writes for The New York Times.