Doubling Down on Food Stamp Cuts

House Republicans are normalizing the idea that food assistance needs to be slashed.

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Shopper Ben Rellinger selects shredded cheese and milk at a Milwaukee grocery store on Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012. If Congress fails to pass a new farm bill by the end of the year, or at least extend certain provisions _ milk-pricing rules will revert back to those outlined in a 1949 law causing a jump in milk, cheese and butter prices.

"If at first you don't succeed, double down," seems to be the mantra of the House GOP, at least when it comes to trying to cut the food stamp program. After Republicans failed to pass $20 billion in cuts from what is officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, they're back with a plan to cut $40 billion that is expected to receive a vote this week.

Remember, back in June the GOP tried to pass a farm bill – which usually includes funding for SNAP – but it ran aground when Democrats balked at the level of food stamp cuts while tea party types screamed for even deeper reductions. The House wound up adopting a bill devoid of food stamp funding entirely, and the new GOP plan is an attempt to get something through by appeasing the far right faction of its caucus.

But what would cuts that deep mean for those who depend upon food stamps? Well, according to a report released Monday by the Congressional Budget Office, Congress' nonpartisan scorekeeper, the bill would result in 3.8 million people losing food stamp eligibility in 2014 alone. Another 850,000 each year, meanwhile, would see their benefits reduced by approximately $90 per month. This jibes with another recent estimate by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which found that the House GOP's plan would knock 4 to 6 million people off of the program.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

But even looking past the insanely deep reductions, there are several problems with the GOP's proposal. First, by changing so-called "work requirements," it would severely harm those who are looking for work but have been unsuccessful due to the weak economy. The driving force behind the bill – House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va. – claimed recently that it would not affect those who legally qualify for benefits and are trying to find a job. "No law-abiding beneficiary who meets the income and asset tests of the current program and is willing to comply with applicable work requirements will lose their benefits under the bill," he said. Sadly, that does not seem to be the case, as Bob Greenstein, who was administrator of the Food and Nutrition Service under President Carter, notes that unemployed beneficiaries would lose their food stamp eligibility after just three months, even in places with sky-high unemployment.

At the moment, the average jobless worker has been out of work for nearly 37 weeks, while the median duration of unemployment is 16 weeks. More than one-third of the unemployed have been looking for work for six months or more, and there are still more than three job seekers for every position available nationally. From that perspective, three months of food stamps isn't going to cut it, even for people who are doing all they can to find a job.

Second, the House GOP bill would cut 210,000 children off from free school meals, as that program is often tied to food stamp eligibility. Making matters worse, even as some House Republicans are attempting to amend the food stamp program to prevent beneficiaries from buying certain types of unhealthy food, the larger GOP plan cuts funding for nutrition education programs aimed at low-income households.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

Republicans tend to treat recent growth in food stamp enrollment as some sort of flaw in the program that needs to be remedied. But the nation recently experienced its worst recession since the Great Depression, so of course enrollment went up. That's how a social safety net is supposed to work! As the economy improves, spending on food stamps will naturally decline back down to its historic level, rendering all the current kvetching meaningless.

Already, a boost in food stamp benefits that was part of the 2009 economic recovery act is set to expire in November, while the Democratically controlled Senate is on board with cutting the program by $4 billion, so the desire to cut food stamps isn't limited to Republicans. However, the level of reductions the GOP wants is new, different and terrible. While it's unlikely that the Senate would adopt such a cut, or that President Obama would sign it, the GOP is normalizing the idea that cutting food stamps is something that needs to be done, convincing the public that the program is being gamed by moochers who just need to work harder to find a job.

But that characterization is simply false; food stamps are a vital lifeline to millions who are struggling to stay afloat in a weak economy. That we're considering cutting food stamps at all when unemployment and poverty are high while incomes are stagnant is terribly depressing. But a $40 billion cut would simply be cruel.

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