After absorbing months of attacks on him as an economic royalist, Mitt Romney is hitting back with an ad as dishonest as any you'll ever see, accusing Barack Obama of coddling welfare recipients ("You wouldn't have to work … they just send you your welfare check"). Literally every word after the 8 second mark on this ad is a lie, with the exception of "I'm Mitt Romney and I approve this message." But the welfare attack is an old Republican standby; if the middle class suspects you're not one of them, remind them that their resentment should be pointed down, not up. The real enemy is poor people, and those who would indulge them.
This month, the House agriculture committee finished its work on the farm bill—a massive piece of legislation that sets policy on everything from government subsidies to food stamps. Even though the Senate had passed its version of the farm bill, which must be reauthorized every five years, no one expected House Majority Leader John Boehner to bring the House committee’s version to the floor before the August recess.
Welfare systems exist to reduce the worst excesses of poverty. When poverty increases during recessions, the welfare state is supposed to rush into countercyclical action, providing a firewall against a growth in destitution.
That’s the theory, anyway. In practice, it’s never been the case. In recent years in particular, the American welfare system has increasingly shed itself of this key obligation.
Something happened today that, chances are, you know little about yet care about very deeply. It helps pay for the lovely farmers market you frequent every weekend. It’s behind all those corn-syrupy soft drinks you’ve been taught to avoid. It’s the reason you started hiking to that one artisanal shop for grass-fed beef after you read The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It helps feed America’s hungry, because it authorizes the federal food-stamp program, which feeds 46 million people. It’s the farm bill, usually the concern of only the corn, wheat, cotton, peanut, and soy-bean lobby, but it really should be called the food bill, and it has to be reauthorized every five years.
The “facts” about poverty can be deceiving. In her magisterial book Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo tells the stories of the inhabitants of a Mumbai slum on the edge of a sewage lake who lack jobs, housing, running water, health care, education, and police protection. It is not unusual to see rats and frogs fried for dinner, feet covered with black fungus, and maggots breeding in wounds wrought by trash-picking. Yet, Boo writes, “almost no one in the slum was considered poor by official Indian benchmarks. … [They] were thus part of one of the most stirring success narratives in the modern history of global market capitalism.” Some success.
We have two basic poverty problems in the United States. One is the prevalence of low-wage work. The other concerns those who have almost no work.
The two overlap.
Most people who are poor work as much as they can and go in and out of poverty. Fewer people have little or no work on a continuing basis, but they are in much worse straits and tend to stay poor from one generation to the next.
The numbers in both categories are stunning.
Low-wage work encompasses people with incomes below twice the poverty line—not poor but struggling all the time to make ends meet. They now total 103 million, which means that fully one-third of the population has an income below what would be $36,000 for a family of three.
Whenever Paul Ryan speaks on the need to reform the welfare state, he declares that what the United States needs is a social safety net, and not a hammock. The idea is easy to understand: A net is meant as a last resort, to keep you from serious danger; a hammock, by contrast, is designed to keep you comfortable or—in Ryan’s words—“lull able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency.”
Mark Bittman is apparently a fan of Republican state senator Ronda Storms, who wants to prevent food stamp recipients from buying junk food:
When she introduced a bill to prevent people in Florida from spending food stamps on unhealthy items like candy, chips and soda, she broke ranks: few of her party have taken on Big Food. […]
Yet she makes sense. “It’s just bad public policy to allow unfettered access to all kinds of food,” she told me over the phone. “Why should we cut all of these programs and continue to pay for people to use food stamps to buy potato chips, Oreos and Mountain Dew? The goal is to feed good food to hungry people.”
(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)President Clinton prepares to sign legislation in the Rose Garden of the White House Thursday, Aug. 22, 1996, overhauling America's welfare system.
Fifteen years ago today, Bill Clinton signed the law that created the program commonly known as welfare-to-work, fulfilling a campaign promise to "end welfare as we know it." Today, there is little doubt that the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act did just that, removing what had been a large cash-assistance program from the social safety net. The decline continues. With the law's federal authorization expiring September 30 and the numbers of impoverished Americans climbing ever higher, welfare is a dead letter in most states.
Tim Fernholz, whom you'll remember from his Prospect days, reported at the National Journal today that the House Agriculture Committee has endorsed a cut to the food-stamp program, known as SNAP. SNAP is dealt with within the USDA, and the committee likely wants to deflect potential cuts to direct-payment programs made to farmers, Fernholz notes. President Obama and others have endorsed cuts and reforms to the subsidies program as a way to curb spending, but some of the representatives on the committee likely have wealthy constitutes who benefit.
In their continuing effort to make theirs the worst state in the Union, Arizona Republicans want to require food-stamp recipients to carry bright-orange identification cards with large black lettering, as opposed to the current, debit-style cards:
[A] Chandler Republican lawmaker wants the debit cards now given to food-stamp recipients to be bright safety orange. And if there's any doubt what the card pulled out of someone's wallet at the checkout is, that would be erased by the words "Government Food Stamp Card" stamped across it in large black print.
In December, Monicapredicted that newly controlled Republican legislatures would slash anti-poverty programs. According to a new report from CLASP, several states are looking at a particularly inefficient, costly, and likely unconstitutional way of doing this: drug testing of recipients of government aid.
Low-income New Yorkers spent half a million dollars at farmer's markets last year according to the City Council, which, under the leadership of Speaker Christine Quinn and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has invested city money for more of the machines that process food stamps at markets across the city. As the Daily News points out, that's about twice the number of food stamps spent at farmer's markets in 2009.