Commentary Magazine


Topic: food stamps

Democrats Make a Farce of SNAP Challenge

This week the House of Representatives is set to debate the misnamed “Farm Bill,” which recently passed the Senate. According to Human Events, the majority of the debate will focus on the explosion of food stamp benefits, and how out-of-control spending on the benefits, officially called SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program), could be curtailed. Late last year the Weekly Standard reported that since 2009 food stamp rolls have increased at a rate of 75 times that of job growth. The Standard quoted Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee explaining that “Over time, these trends, if not reversed, spell economic disaster for the United States and its citizens.”

Spending for food stamps has increased 70 percent during the Obama administration and if the Farm Bill passes in its current form, those spending rates will be locked in place. In order to draw attention to the bill, it’s en vogue this week for Democrats to take up the “SNAP Challenge,” an experiment in shopping and eating on a budget of $4.50 a day, the amount that SNAP awards individuals on the program.

Even the Washington Post took the challenges to task, reminding lawmakers that the S in SNAP stands for supplemental. More than 70 percent of households on the program have school-aged children, thus qualifying them for free or reduced-price meals. While the average benefit for a one-person household is $4.50 a day, that figure increases with additional family members, especially if members of the family are receiving two meals a day for free at school. 

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This week the House of Representatives is set to debate the misnamed “Farm Bill,” which recently passed the Senate. According to Human Events, the majority of the debate will focus on the explosion of food stamp benefits, and how out-of-control spending on the benefits, officially called SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program), could be curtailed. Late last year the Weekly Standard reported that since 2009 food stamp rolls have increased at a rate of 75 times that of job growth. The Standard quoted Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee explaining that “Over time, these trends, if not reversed, spell economic disaster for the United States and its citizens.”

Spending for food stamps has increased 70 percent during the Obama administration and if the Farm Bill passes in its current form, those spending rates will be locked in place. In order to draw attention to the bill, it’s en vogue this week for Democrats to take up the “SNAP Challenge,” an experiment in shopping and eating on a budget of $4.50 a day, the amount that SNAP awards individuals on the program.

Even the Washington Post took the challenges to task, reminding lawmakers that the S in SNAP stands for supplemental. More than 70 percent of households on the program have school-aged children, thus qualifying them for free or reduced-price meals. While the average benefit for a one-person household is $4.50 a day, that figure increases with additional family members, especially if members of the family are receiving two meals a day for free at school. 

As to be expected when a $955 billion bill targeting the out-of-control welfare state comes up for a vote, political grandstanding has ensued. This week 36 members of Congress have taken up the challenge, and it seems they’re aiming to outdo each other in ridiculous stunts to showcase just how difficult they think living on a limited food budget is for average Americans. The blogger Sooper Mexican has an amusing rundown of the worst moments so far, which include shopping at a high-end supermarket and buying a single egg for $1.08. It seems that these politicians believe that Americans receiving public assistance should be able to shop for a single hard boiled egg at the time at Whole Foods, with their fellow Americans footing the bill. The Washington Post even offered a suggestion for the SNAP challengers, from the USDA’s own website:

[The] USDA also publishes an extensive list of recipes that can be used to produce a healthy low-cost meal. A search for dishes costing $4.50 or less turned up 444 options, many of which were for eight or more servings. Dishes costing less than $1.50 produced 116 results.

Many conservatives have also taken up the challenge, noting how, with smart shopping and advanced planning, families can easily and healthfully live solely within the SNAP allotment. With millions of American families living on budgets tighter than ever, it’s a message that resonates with voters. This, coupled with the fact that food stamps were never meant to supply a family’s full nutritional needs, are what conservatives should be emphasizing if they plan on voting against the bill. With the House Speaker John Boehner publicly stating that he plans to support the House’s version of the bill, which is only slightly less bloated than the Senate version, it’s unclear if conservatives will even try to block the bill’s passage. 

Instead of locking in current spending rates, some commonsense solutions to our food stamp epidemic can and should be implemented. Another government assistance program, WIC, limits spending to basic staples, something that those receiving food stamps should also be required to do. There are countless stories of those on the program going on spending sprees to use up their benefits, buying candy and sometimes even lobsters on their fellow taxpayer’s dime. Realistically, conservatives don’t have enough political capital or power to do anything to slow, let alone halt, these massive explosions of food stamp spending. If Democrats promoting the SNAP Challenge are unable to budget, both at the supermarket with their own credit card and while budgeting for our nation’s expenditures, it appears they’re also unwilling to ask their fellow Americans to do so, even if those Americans are spending taxpayer dollars. If that’s not the definition of the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” what is?

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The Problem with Food Stamp Challenges

With several proposed cuts to SNAP, better known as food stamps, a new fad has emerged among social activists: food stamp challenges. Among the most notable challengers is Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who will begin the challenge on December 4 and is already hyping, on Twitter of course, his plan to budget a week’s food allowance according to what those on food stamps are able to spend on the program. 

Booker and other challengers don’t seem to realize what SNAP actually stands for: Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. The word supplemental is a crucial descriptor for the program, which was never meant to be the sole provider of nutrition for its enrollees. There are other ways fill the gaps between SNAP and full nutrition, including free lunch programs at schools and food banks and kitchens. Nutritional programs are not the only way for those on food stamps to feed their families, however. For those physically unable to work, there is the option of obtaining assistance through Social Security disability. For those who are able to work, there is no reason to completely rely on governmental assistance programs to provide for their families. 

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With several proposed cuts to SNAP, better known as food stamps, a new fad has emerged among social activists: food stamp challenges. Among the most notable challengers is Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who will begin the challenge on December 4 and is already hyping, on Twitter of course, his plan to budget a week’s food allowance according to what those on food stamps are able to spend on the program. 

Booker and other challengers don’t seem to realize what SNAP actually stands for: Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. The word supplemental is a crucial descriptor for the program, which was never meant to be the sole provider of nutrition for its enrollees. There are other ways fill the gaps between SNAP and full nutrition, including free lunch programs at schools and food banks and kitchens. Nutritional programs are not the only way for those on food stamps to feed their families, however. For those physically unable to work, there is the option of obtaining assistance through Social Security disability. For those who are able to work, there is no reason to completely rely on governmental assistance programs to provide for their families. 

What Booker and others are doing with these food stamps challenges is attempting to have the supplemental program provide the entirety of their nutritional needs, something the program was never designed to do, nor should it. By participating in these challenges public figures like Booker are making martyrs out of those who rely on an assistance program funded by our tax dollars. While receiving food stamps was once a shameful and embarrassing act, participants are now provided with “EBT” cards which can be quietly swiped into credit card machines at grocery stores and convenience shops. What Booker and other socially conscious activists should be applauding is not those who live on food stamps, but instead those who work their way off of them.

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Obama’s Food Stamp Presidency

Back during the Republican primaries, liberals accused Newt Gingrich of racism for pointing out that more people were receiving food stamps under Barack Obama’s presidency than ever before. But as a report from CNN shows, though spending on food stamps has doubled since the end of 2008 and more than one in seven Americans are now receiving them, the administration says that isn’t enough. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is running radio ads targeting Hispanics, the elderly and the poor encouraging those who aren’t already participating to sign up.

The USDA believes that despite the massive increase in spending on food stamps that was authorized as part of President Obama’s stimulus act, many more people who are legally eligible for assistance are not getting them, prompting the government recruitment campaign. While this can be represented as an attempt to help the poor, it is also an indication that the government’s focus is on increasing dependency and not on helping people to become self-sufficient. The push to spend more on food stamps made possible by the stimulus is making it look like Gingrich was right.

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Back during the Republican primaries, liberals accused Newt Gingrich of racism for pointing out that more people were receiving food stamps under Barack Obama’s presidency than ever before. But as a report from CNN shows, though spending on food stamps has doubled since the end of 2008 and more than one in seven Americans are now receiving them, the administration says that isn’t enough. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is running radio ads targeting Hispanics, the elderly and the poor encouraging those who aren’t already participating to sign up.

The USDA believes that despite the massive increase in spending on food stamps that was authorized as part of President Obama’s stimulus act, many more people who are legally eligible for assistance are not getting them, prompting the government recruitment campaign. While this can be represented as an attempt to help the poor, it is also an indication that the government’s focus is on increasing dependency and not on helping people to become self-sufficient. The push to spend more on food stamps made possible by the stimulus is making it look like Gingrich was right.

Liberals portrayed the food stamps controversy as a diversion from more important economic issues on Gingrich’s part last winter as well as a racist “dog whistle” argument in which he was accused of trying to link President Obama to African-American poverty. But the expansion of entitlements in the last four years is no illusion.

Obama’s defenders can rightly point to the fact that the Bush administration also used advertisements to recruit more food stamps recipients. They can also note that some of the increase is due to the rise in need as the result of the economic downturn from which the country has yet to recover. But the huge increase in spending on food stamps is just part of the expansion of government spending on entitlements under this administration. Moreover, at a time when the debt is spiraling out of control as a result of entitlement spending, the spectacle of the government trying to entice more citizens to get on the dole is appalling.

While Bill Clinton, the last Democrat to sit in the White House before Obama, is remembered for signing a welfare reform act (passed by a Republican Congress over his objections) that began a historic shift away from welfare dependency, President Obama deserves the opprobrium that should attach to his efforts to reverse that trend. When the stimulus boondoggle was passed few noticed that it contained language that would allow more people to get on food stamps, especially childless and healthy unemployed adults as well as increasing the amount given away.

The Democrats have fiercely resisted Republican efforts to change the way food stamps are funded. The GOP wants to emulate the welfare reform act and send the program to the states as a block grant that would make it more accountable on the local level and decrease the power of the federal government as well as spending.

But however the money is allocated, there is no question that food stamps have become a symbol not of GOP racism but the Obama administration’s push for more dependency. Though Republicans are accused of being heartless, the result of this thralldom to the welfare state hurts the poor as well as the country.

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Should We Police Food Stamps?

Earlier this week, my colleague Jonathan Tobin wrote about the expansion of the nanny state, this time with the government policing what food stamps recipients can and cannot buy. There is no denying that government food police exist – I don’t need to look further than my hometown of New York City for the proof. Mayor Bloomberg has banned transfats, required restaurants to post their Health Department ratings in their windows, required fast food chains to post their nutritional information on their menus, and the list goes on. I have to disagree with Jonathan, however, on the idea that setting limits on what can be purchased with food stamps by a conservative in the Florida legislature fits into the expansion of nanny state behavior.

The proposed restrictions on food stamps, limiting recipients from buying candy, chips or soda would help eliminate waste and help the program do what it originally set out to do: provide food (not snacks) to the needy. I’m reminded of a post written late last year by a young woman, a college student, who spent two summers working at Walmart. The writer, Christine Rousselle, became a conservative internet sensation writing about how working the register at the low-end retailer reaffirmed her conservative values. She describes incidents she witnessed consistently during the course of her summer job:

People using TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) money to buy such necessities such as earrings, KitKat bars, beer, WWE figurines, and, my personal favorite, a slip n’ slide. TANF money does not have restrictions like food stamps on what can be bought with it.

Extravagant purchases made with food stamps; including, but not limited to: steaks, lobsters, and giant birthday cakes.

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Earlier this week, my colleague Jonathan Tobin wrote about the expansion of the nanny state, this time with the government policing what food stamps recipients can and cannot buy. There is no denying that government food police exist – I don’t need to look further than my hometown of New York City for the proof. Mayor Bloomberg has banned transfats, required restaurants to post their Health Department ratings in their windows, required fast food chains to post their nutritional information on their menus, and the list goes on. I have to disagree with Jonathan, however, on the idea that setting limits on what can be purchased with food stamps by a conservative in the Florida legislature fits into the expansion of nanny state behavior.

The proposed restrictions on food stamps, limiting recipients from buying candy, chips or soda would help eliminate waste and help the program do what it originally set out to do: provide food (not snacks) to the needy. I’m reminded of a post written late last year by a young woman, a college student, who spent two summers working at Walmart. The writer, Christine Rousselle, became a conservative internet sensation writing about how working the register at the low-end retailer reaffirmed her conservative values. She describes incidents she witnessed consistently during the course of her summer job:

People using TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) money to buy such necessities such as earrings, KitKat bars, beer, WWE figurines, and, my personal favorite, a slip n’ slide. TANF money does not have restrictions like food stamps on what can be bought with it.

Extravagant purchases made with food stamps; including, but not limited to: steaks, lobsters, and giant birthday cakes.

Living in New York, I see abuses like these every day. Last week, soon before the Jewish Sabbath began on Friday night, I ducked into a local market to quickly pick up some last minute items for our Sabbath meals. The market, in addition to stocking basic fruits, vegetables, meats and eggs, also sells a large quantity of specialty imported Russian goods for the large Russian expat community in my neighborhood. In line in front of me stood a man wearing brand new Nike sneakers and a leather jacket, picking out $40 of imported specialty Russian chocolates. Five excruciatingly long minutes later, he paid for all of his items using his food stamps card. Late nights, I see young people at the local corner stores with bloodshot eyes, stocking up on chips and candy, paying for their sugar binges with my tax dollars.

A nutrition program for the Women, Infants and Children program (WIC) has strict guidelines on how subsidies from the program must be used, limiting purchases to basic adult food needs (in addition to infant items): bread, meat, fruits and vegetables, cereal, cheese and milk. Any purchases outside of these guidelines must be made with personal funds. Speaking with a woman who receives these funds, I’ve heard the guidelines are clearly explained, with WIC even going to the trouble of sending pictures of items that fit their qualifications.

Do I believe everyone should eat what’s on the WIC list of approved items? Sure. With the correlations between income level and obesity, it seems like a no-brainer to add more whole grains and fruits and vegetables into people’s diets. If the government were out to ban Happy Meals, I would be as outraged as any conservative. With my tax dollars, though, if people claim to be unable to afford basic nutrition, that’s all they should be receiving from the government: basic nutrition. If they want to eat their weight in potato chips and soda, they can do it on their own dime.

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Obamacare’s Stepchildren: The Food Police

The debate about Obamacare and the way the government is using it to mandate that institutions pay for services they oppose such as contraception has brought the whole question of intrusive federal regulation back into the public eye. But those who believe this is something that will be limited to health care are probably deceiving themselves. The impulse to tell people how they should live and what they should do is implicit in the ideology that gave birth to Obamacare. If some influential people have their way, Washington’s power to impose its will may be extended into other spheres that were heretofore considered so far out of the government’s purview as to have been considered laughable. But as New York Times Magazine food columnist Mark Bittman wrote yesterday, the day may be fast approaching when government bureaucrats will be telling some, if not all citizens, what foods they may or may not eat.

Bittman picks up on the attempt by a conservative Republican in the Florida legislature to pass a bill that would prevent recipients of food stamps from spending their chits on junk food like candy, chips or soda. The willingness of a right-winger to join the food police encourages Bittman to think the time will not be long before sugar is regulated the way the production and marketing of alcohol and tobacco are controlled by the government. While Bittman’s nutritional advice about the dangers of over-consumption of products drenched in sugar and corn syrup is well taken, the notion that such choices will be taken out of the hands of consumers ought to frighten anyone who values individual freedom and understands the perils of a nanny state. Some may scoff at this possibility, but the Obamacare precedent and the power the president’s signature program will give the government may change everything in the future. Bittman’s argument that the costs of health care will make such government micro-managing of our lives inevitable may prove prophetic if Obamacare is not repealed next year.

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The debate about Obamacare and the way the government is using it to mandate that institutions pay for services they oppose such as contraception has brought the whole question of intrusive federal regulation back into the public eye. But those who believe this is something that will be limited to health care are probably deceiving themselves. The impulse to tell people how they should live and what they should do is implicit in the ideology that gave birth to Obamacare. If some influential people have their way, Washington’s power to impose its will may be extended into other spheres that were heretofore considered so far out of the government’s purview as to have been considered laughable. But as New York Times Magazine food columnist Mark Bittman wrote yesterday, the day may be fast approaching when government bureaucrats will be telling some, if not all citizens, what foods they may or may not eat.

Bittman picks up on the attempt by a conservative Republican in the Florida legislature to pass a bill that would prevent recipients of food stamps from spending their chits on junk food like candy, chips or soda. The willingness of a right-winger to join the food police encourages Bittman to think the time will not be long before sugar is regulated the way the production and marketing of alcohol and tobacco are controlled by the government. While Bittman’s nutritional advice about the dangers of over-consumption of products drenched in sugar and corn syrup is well taken, the notion that such choices will be taken out of the hands of consumers ought to frighten anyone who values individual freedom and understands the perils of a nanny state. Some may scoff at this possibility, but the Obamacare precedent and the power the president’s signature program will give the government may change everything in the future. Bittman’s argument that the costs of health care will make such government micro-managing of our lives inevitable may prove prophetic if Obamacare is not repealed next year.

Bittman is right to say obesity has become a major national health problem. Nor would I dispute his arguments that American nutritional habits are doing us and the country no good. But the notion that this is reason enough to give the government the power to prevent people from buying the food they wish to eat is a fundamental assault on individual liberty.

Food stamp recipients are vulnerable to such regulation because their poverty and dependence renders them helpless against such intrusions. If they are taking our money, some people reason, then we should be able to tell them what to do, especially if it is obviously for their own good. But this sort of utilitarian argument has no limits. If the national exchequer is burdened by the costs of caring for those who suffer from obesity, then we can just as easily be told that sugar or any other substance selected by the food police (Bittman prefers the term “vigilantes”) can be regulated or banned for everyone, not just those who rely on government handouts.

The ideological underpinning of this thinking can be found in Bittman’s assertion that it is the government’s job to take care of itself. If, as he believes, the government is failing to sufficiently protect us from ourselves, then it is time for enlightened souls to step in and force it to take control. However well-intentioned Bittman’s prescription for the national diet may be, government involvement on the scale that he is discussing is the epitome of the political trend that Jonah Goldberg aptly styled Liberal Fascism.

One might assume the food industry will fight this expansion of government control tooth and nail. But the example of Obamacare demonstrates all too well how businesses can be co-opted into acquiescing to a takeover by the federal leviathan. Unless Obamacare is stopped next year by a new president and Congress, we may well eventually find out just how far the reach of an empowered government can go.

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California Taxpayer to the Feds: Don’t Do It!

I live and pay taxes in California. And when I read Governor Schwarzenegger’s “threats” today, about the consequences of the federal government’s not bailing out the state by $8 billion, my immediate reaction was “No bail-out! Carry out the threats!”

The Governator’s threats are to cut funding to the state welfare program and in-home health services, and to push for a resumption of offshore drilling to raise new revenue. The state’s welfare policies are extremely counterproductive: in combined state and federal subsidies, beneficiaries can receive over $1,500 a month–more if they have dependents–plus food stamps, free medical care, and low-income housing, which are enough to live on pretty well in many parts of the state. The ease with which day laborers can earn undeclared cash income, moreover, means many families have substantially more than their welfare subsidies to live on. California benefits give native Californians the option of lifetime dependency, but they do worse than that: they attract millions of welfare aspirants from elsewhere.

Earlier this year I received this communication from an unusually knowledgeable reader. It’s a dollar-by-dollar description of the welfare benefits available to people in California, and of how the residents of a north-coastal county consequently live, in a census area where only 6 out of 256 people actually have paying jobs. This is a broken, unsustainable system. By far the best thing that could happen to California is for this system to fail, and to have to be reconstituted under much different procedures. The burden of it, as a major element of state spending, makes it a Sisyphean task under the best of economic conditions for new businesses to establish themselves, and for working families to stay in or enter the middle class.

Offshore drilling, meanwhile, is something California should never have stopped doing. The state could also realize healthy revenues, as well as jobs and cheaper fuel for residents, by retooling its existing refineries. Efforts to do so, however, have been stalled by environmentalist lawsuits and, in some cases, by California senators. The nation as a whole, we should note, would also benefit from a resumption of drilling and a more robust oil-production profile in the Golden State.

Welfarism, economically destructive taxation and regulation, irresponsible environmentalism: California’s fiscal wounds are all self-inflicted. An $8 billion bail-out from Washington would only enable the state to stagger about dementedly for a bit longer, still holding a knife plunged between its ribs. This is what the therapists call a dysfunctional situation, and it needs intervention, not enabling. Don’t do it, Washington. Don’t do it.

I live and pay taxes in California. And when I read Governor Schwarzenegger’s “threats” today, about the consequences of the federal government’s not bailing out the state by $8 billion, my immediate reaction was “No bail-out! Carry out the threats!”

The Governator’s threats are to cut funding to the state welfare program and in-home health services, and to push for a resumption of offshore drilling to raise new revenue. The state’s welfare policies are extremely counterproductive: in combined state and federal subsidies, beneficiaries can receive over $1,500 a month–more if they have dependents–plus food stamps, free medical care, and low-income housing, which are enough to live on pretty well in many parts of the state. The ease with which day laborers can earn undeclared cash income, moreover, means many families have substantially more than their welfare subsidies to live on. California benefits give native Californians the option of lifetime dependency, but they do worse than that: they attract millions of welfare aspirants from elsewhere.

Earlier this year I received this communication from an unusually knowledgeable reader. It’s a dollar-by-dollar description of the welfare benefits available to people in California, and of how the residents of a north-coastal county consequently live, in a census area where only 6 out of 256 people actually have paying jobs. This is a broken, unsustainable system. By far the best thing that could happen to California is for this system to fail, and to have to be reconstituted under much different procedures. The burden of it, as a major element of state spending, makes it a Sisyphean task under the best of economic conditions for new businesses to establish themselves, and for working families to stay in or enter the middle class.

Offshore drilling, meanwhile, is something California should never have stopped doing. The state could also realize healthy revenues, as well as jobs and cheaper fuel for residents, by retooling its existing refineries. Efforts to do so, however, have been stalled by environmentalist lawsuits and, in some cases, by California senators. The nation as a whole, we should note, would also benefit from a resumption of drilling and a more robust oil-production profile in the Golden State.

Welfarism, economically destructive taxation and regulation, irresponsible environmentalism: California’s fiscal wounds are all self-inflicted. An $8 billion bail-out from Washington would only enable the state to stagger about dementedly for a bit longer, still holding a knife plunged between its ribs. This is what the therapists call a dysfunctional situation, and it needs intervention, not enabling. Don’t do it, Washington. Don’t do it.

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