The Democrats' Original Food-Stamp Sin

“Today, 47 million Americans struggling to put food on the table will have to make do with less,” began the emailed press release from House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi’s office. The statement lamented the $5 billion cut to food-stamp benefits that took effect November 1, rolling back a 13.6 percent expansion to the program that was part of the 2009 stimulus package. The cuts leave “participants with just $1.40 to spend per meal,” the press release continued, adding that House Republicans want to subject food stamps to more cuts in the future.

But before Democrats completely rewrite the history of this body blow to the poor, a review of the facts would be in order. The seeds of this current food-stamp cut were sown by multiple deals made when Democrats held both chambers of Congress and the White House. They used money from the food-stamp program to pay for other priorities like education, health care and the school lunch program, all the while assuring that they would eventually restore the cuts. Those promises were broken, the crocodile tears from the left side of the aisle mask the bipartisan nature of slashes to this essential program, which currently provides nutrition assistance for nearly one in six Americans. It’s a disappointing example of how Washington’s fascination with the deficit and inattention to the plight of the most vulnerable didn’t begin with the Tea Party.

Cast your mind back to those bygone days of 2010. The stimulus was chugging along, and the 13.6 percent increase in food-stamp benefits, officially known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), was one of its most effective measures. Food stamps are among the most effective ways to deliver direct assistance to people in need, and because it’s a benefit that involves consumer purchases, it props up the retail sector as well. Every dollar increase to SNAP generates around $1.70 in economic activity, according to Moody’s Analytics.

The increased SNAP benefit was supposed to phase out gradually, by letting inflation catch up to the higher benefit level. Because of smaller-than-expected increases in food prices, the money allocated in 2009 would have lasted until at least 2016. But Democrats, in full control of the government, decided SNAP money could serve as a funding source to funnel to other needs. For example, the stimulus was too small to reverse the carnage caused by the Great Recession, especially in the states, where thousands of teachers were being fired, and Medicaid beneficiaries were losing their coverage. In 2010, Democrats had the idea for a $26 billion supplemental state fiscal-aid bill, to fill those education and health-care gaps.

Earlier that year, Democrats proudly wrote and passed a statutory “pay as you go” bill, on a party-line vote, forcing all new federal spending to be offset by reductions elsewhere in the budget. The state fiscal-aid bill would have to be paid for, and the Obama Administration immediately looked to SNAP as a cookie jar they could raid. According to then-House Appropriations Committee chair David Obey, “Their line of argument was, well, the cost of food relative to what we thought it would be has come down, so people on food stamps are getting a pretty good deal in comparison to what we thought they were going to get. Well isn’t that nice? Some poor bastard is going to get a break for a change.”

Liberal politicians and advocates reckoned that the state fiscal-aid package filled an immediate need, while the SNAP rollback wouldn’t take effect until years later, presumably when fewer people would need the assistance. In the end, Democrats used $11.9 billion originally intended for SNAP to fund the state fiscal-aid bill, accelerating the phase-out of the increased stimulus benefit to 2014. But everyone on the left insisted that they would push to restore those cuts before they took effect. Progressive allies like Chuck Lovelace, legislative director for AFSCME, the public-employees union, told me back then, “we intend to go back and work to restore that benefit at the appropriate time.” Liberal senators like Ron Wyden, the Oregon Democrat, agreed, telling the Huffington Post, “we're going to be able to find a way to ensure that there's help for needy folks in terms of assistance with hunger.”

But instead of immediately working on restoring the funds, Democrats would raid SNAP again. First Lady Michelle Obama has made a priority of the child obesity epidemic, and she heavily promoted the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The bill, which reauthorized the child-nutrition program that delivers free school lunches to needy children, allocated $4.5 billion to implement new standards for healthier foods and to increase access to free school lunches. Because of the pay-as-you-go rule, this also required offsets. And SNAP proved an inviting target once again. In August 2010, the Senate partially financed their version of the bill with a $2.2 billion cut to SNAP, leaving the increased benefits to phase out by October 2013. This was the equivalent of paying for more school lunches for poor children by taking away their future breakfasts and dinners.

Hunger advocates and many House Democrats initially balked. Over 100 liberal members wrote a letter to Nancy Pelosi demanding no SNAP cuts in the child nutrition bill. Citing “concerns about the deficit,” then-Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, White House officials and the First Lady herself lobbied House progressives aggressively. And in the lame-duck session after the 2010 elections, the bill finally passed. Democrats waived their objections to the SNAP cuts after losing the House in the 2010 midterms. Time essentially ran out on the Democratic majority, and the choices were either the Senate bill—and its $2.2 billion cut to SNAP—or no overhaul of child nutrition standards. Democrats opted for the former, with all but four voting for final passage. Again, Democrats, right on up to President Obama, vowed to restore the SNAP cuts before they hit. But with Republicans taking over the House, these promises rang hollow.

The Democratic failure on food stamps had multiple culprits. Congress locked itself into a pay-as-you-go formula it could have waived by citing emergency measures, but never did. Fiscally conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats like Ben Nelson would never have voted for extra spending, and Harry Reid needed every Senate Democrat to pass most bills. Moreover, this fiscal conservatism in a time of crisis matched the President’s “pivot” to deficit reduction in 2010, which has done major damage to the economy; since that time, federal spending has become a fiscal drag, taking away from GDP instead of adding to it.

Using food stamps as a pay-for, instead of tax breaks for millionaires and oil companies, reveals much about the priorities of the Democratic Party. For example, the assumption made by the White House that the baseline SNAP benefit is adequate, and that recipients were getting too good a deal with the expansion, is borderline insulting and shows the lack of familiarity with the realities of poverty in America. The cuts that took effect November 1 equal the reduction of a week’s meals for a 9 year-old child. Food banks around the country are now bracing for increased demand.

Democrats also assumed that the economy would be back on its feet by the end of 2013, and that fewer people would be affected by the SNAP rollback. But they’ve consistently made this mistake of optimism throughout the recovery. Failing to have an emergency mindset around returning the nation to full employment, and expecting the economy to turn around by itself, drove decisions that have wounded the most vulnerable.

Liberals have introduced bills to reverse the cuts, but with the current leadership in the House, they’re a nonstarter. In fact, the choices on SNAP today range from Republican demands to cut the program by $40 billion over the next decade to a Democratic counter-offer to only cut it by $4.5 billion. While these are small in relative terms—SNAP paid out $76 billion just in 2012—so many Americans rely on food stamps, and its benefits are so meager that any cuts will have an outsized effect.

We shouldn’t forget that the same Democrats sponsoring bills to reverse SNAP cuts voted for them in the first place. They made a series of choices while in total control of Washington, and those choices have had consequences. If the party had more respect for the struggles of the poor, rather than a deep attention to political positioning and the scourge of the deficit, this would have never happened.

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