Glawe: Food stamps ensure social mobility

Michael Glawe

Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman recently, and rather brilliantly, summoned the words of La Rochefoucauld to highlight the Republican’s ever growing disdain of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [SNAP], “Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.” The artificial gestures of compassion towards the poor and jobless are unveiled with every sly claim that cutting benefits will encourage the impoverished to participate in the workforce. As if they weren’t already.

The discussion over the food stamp program began again with the introduction of new budget proposals by the Obama administration.

Meanwhile, Rep. Paul Ryan is rolling out the GOP’s budget plan, which will attempt to make changes to the nation’s welfare system by cutting into the programs he believes are spurring on poverty. As the Congressman himself stated, “For too long, we have measured compassion by how much we spend instead of how many people get out of poverty. We need to take a hard look at what the federal government is doing and ask, ‘Is this working?’”

Ryan and the members on his House Budget Committee are operating under grave misapprehensions. The claim by Ryan that welfare programs perpetuate poverty is largely, and absurdly, unsubstantiated. The assertions come with a subtle brush stroke over the evidence intended to prove the point — as Krugman adequately explains, the assertions are littered with “argument by innuendo.”

Not only that, but the citations largely misrepresent and mislead the research. This is evidenced by the general anger and frustration expressed by the economists who say their work was misstated in Ryan’s report entitled “The War on Poverty: 50 Years Later.” Inundating readers with citations and footnotes, of course, doesn’t necessarily make the claim truer.

Why dance with the issue, though? There is a definitely point at which too many benefits leads to a large reduction in the labor force participation rate and increased disincentive to work, but we are nowhere near that point.

Even more so, at the risk of sounding too plaintiff, the grievances are directed towards food and other necessities of living. Is it the principled and moral position to let our people go hungry? I appeal to the “better angels of our nature.”

Ryan reassures us that reductions in anti-poverty measures will help people rise out of poverty. If the congressman’s claim were true, the United States would lead the world in social mobility, given the fact that we treat our poor much worse than other developed countries. But as economists such as Joseph Stiglitz have rightly pointed out, the United States is nowhere near leading the pack in social mobility.

Again, “Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.”

There is the exhaustive counter that SNAP is littered with fraud, and these allegations require a bit of untangling. Although rare, there is fraud within every benefit program. The mere existence of fraud severely harms the credibility of the honest and earnest low-income worker trying to feed their family. Just as well, fraud disenchants the taxpayer, and incites the misconception that welfare programs are mere handouts to the lazy.

Those who break the law do not epitomize the food stamp program. 

Jon Stewart cleverly poked fun at the Right’s accusations that food stamps are being used for luxury foods. Even if this were true, I would be fine by it. I am not offended by the person who chooses to alleviate the tribulations of poverty by numbing the pain.

To redo Marx, the wish to give up the condition of poverty is the wish to eliminate the circumstances that create the condition.

Yet, with our admission, the Republicans seem to be winning on this issue. President Obama’s budget only leaves us in further lament, as it will not seek to reverse cuts made to SNAP last year. But the lament is short, so long as the minimum wage is raised. A minimum wage hike would reduce food stamp spending by $4.6 billion a year.

If the GOP has its way, and wins on both food stamps and minimum wage, we would be cruelly shrugging off the cries of the poor, jobless and disadvantaged. 

Republicans, such as former Vice President Dick Cheney, believe Obama’s budget should focus spending more money in defense rather than the food stamp program. This, despite the fact that military families spend $100 million in SNAP benefits on military bases every year.

More so, in the preamble to our constitution, we claim to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty.” In order to form a more perfect union, we must look beyond providing for the “common defense” and focus our eyes upon eliminating that condition which hampers the security of liberty both for ourselves and our posterity.