The right-wing echo chamber has vilified food stamp users with a variety of absurd lies and myths. As a result, people will go hungry.
By Dave Johnson / Alternet
In the middle of the worst economy and job situation in decades Republicans in the House voted to cut $40 billion from food stamps. This will kick 3.8 million people out of the program by 2014, 3 million more each year after.
Republicans in Congress have blocked every effort to help the economy. They block bills to create jobs by fixing our crumbling infrastructure because it’s “government spending.” At the same time, right-wing outlets (accurately) complain that the economy is so weak that millions are hurting. And then the same Republicans who blocked efforts to help the economy cut assistance to the people who are hurting, claiming they don’t really need the help. No shame.
In the months leading up to this vote , right-wing outlets such as Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, RedState and the rest of the far-right propaganda machine invented a number of justifications for cutting the program. Here is a takedown of some of those myths and lies.
Myth #1: Food stamps are “growing exponentially” because of waste and fraud.
Rep. Rick Crawford (R-AR) recently said, “Throughout the Obama presidency, we’ve seen the food stamp program grow exponentially because the government continues to turn a blind eye to a system fraught with abuse.”
Interestingly, a number of members of Congress disparage food stamps while receiving farm subsidies. Rep. Vicki Hartzler (R-MO) said, “This program is known for waste, fraud and abuse.” (Halter has received $516,000 in farm subsidies.) Kristi Noem (R-SD) said, “Loopholes and fraud …have led to federal spending on SNAP to increase 270%.” (Noem has received $503,000 in farm subsidies.) And Rep. Doug Lamalfa (R-CA) said that churches are more “accountable” at helping the poor than government. He said government has “failed” at helping the poor, so we should “retract” the program. (Lamalfa has received more than $1.7 million in farm subsidies.)
And other conservatives call President Obama the “food stamp president” because the program has grown since the recession hit.
Actually, the SNAP (food stamp) program is doing exactly what it is supposed to do and what a democracy would ask of it. It is helping people who need the help.
Last March the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) responded to the charges that the program’s growth is out of control, reporting that:
- SNAP has responded effectively to the recession.
- The recent growth in SNAP spending is temporary.
- SNAP reaches a high share of people who are eligible.
- SNAP payment accuracy is at all-time highs.
(Click through to CBPP for comprehensive details.)
What about “fraud?” Implicit in the accusation that the program is “growing exponentially” is the idea that the program is rife with fraud and waste. But the fraud and waste rate in the SNAP program is less than 1 percent. The Department of Agriculture (USDA) administers the SNAP program. They say the fraud rate “has fallen significantly over the last two decades, from about 4 cents on the dollar in 1993 to about 1 cent in 2006-08 (most recent data available).”
Finally, the “error rate” which includes overpayments and payments to ineligible households is very low as well. According to Feeding America using USDA data, “SNAP error rates declined by 57% since FY2000, from 8.91% in FY2000 to a record low of 3.80% in FY2011.” Want to guess what the “compliance rate” with the IRS is? Last time they checked (2006) $450 billion was left uncollected because of non-compliance. In one year. But conservatives aren’t complaining about that.
Myth #2: Cutting food stamps will make people get jobs because able-bodied people are getting food stamps instead of working.
Republicans call food stamps “welfare” and called the bill cutting food stamps the “Work Opportunity Act.” The idea is that after five years of recession and with 11.3 million people unemployed—4.3 million out of work for 27 weeks or more—along with 7.9 million people working part-time but looking for full-time and another 2.3 million “marginally attached” what the country needs is even more hungry people.
Actually, even though many on food stamps are children, elderly, disabled or temporarily unemployed, lots of people who use food stamps already are working. According to Feeding America “76% of SNAP households included a child, an elderly person, or a disabled person. These vulnerable households receive 83% of all SNAP benefits.” According to the USDA, “Over 30 percent of SNAP households had earnings in 2011, and 41 percent of all SNAP participants lived in a household with earnings.”
One more thing, people don’t get very much food stamp money: 4% get only $16 a month. The average household gets $281 a month. The average individual gets about $133 a month.
Would you quit work or refuse a job for $133 a month which can only be used to buy food?
Myth #3: Food stamps make people “dependent.”
Rep. Mike Cramer (R-ND) recently served up an example of right-wing mythology, saying that food stamps are responsible for “a culture of permanent dependency.”
The right-wing Heritage Foundation and others constantly harp on this idea that democracies providing government services for people makes them “dependent”—as if people are squirrels who will lose the ability to find their own food in the wild.
This idea that government services make people “dependent” is an insult to people, democracy and civilization. Does the government service of bringing water to your house make you dependent on not taking a bucket down to the stream or something? Does a road make you dependent on not walking your donkey through the woods to town? Do police and courts make you “dependent” on not having good swordsmanship or carrying a large club?
If anyone is “dependent,” it is corporations that pay so little their employees have to come to the taxpayers for help buying food for their families.
Myth #4: Food stamps are about politicians “buying votes” with other people’s money.
Amplifying the “dependency” argument, conservatives disparage democracy by saying that elected officials “buy votes” by providing food to hungry people—and other government services.
The Christian Post has an example, in “Signing Up Seniors for Food Stamps Is Called ‘Buying Votes’ for Obama, Says Fox News Host.” The story reports that Fox News’ Stuart Varney says, “The AARP, huge support[er]s of President Obama, politically and financially, big supporters of Obamacare. And now they’re out there signing people up for food stamps. This is part of the buy-the-vote campaign. They’re really shifting America, changing what America really is,” he said.
Far-right Brietbart blasts, “HOW MANY VOTES WILL A 70% INCREASE IN FOOD STAMPS BUY?” Similarly the right-wing Washington Times says, “Food stamps for votes.”
The idea of a democracy is that people vote for the things they want, everyone has an equal vote, everyone pitches in and everyone shares in the resulting prosperity. Government spending in a democracy is, by definition, We the People doing things to make our lives better. But to conservatives, government doing things that make our lives better is just “buying votes.”
Myth #5: Food stamp recipients take drugs.
The Republican bill to cut food stamps also will “allow states to require food stamp recipients to be tested for drugs.”
Harold Pollack and Sheldon Danziger at the Washington Post look at this in “House Republicans want drug tests for food-stamp recipients. There’s no good reason for that.” They write, “Using 2011 data from the National Survey of Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), we looked at the behaviors and circumstances of adults ages 18-64 whose households received SNAP. We examined whether respondents had used some illicit substance during the previous month or year. We then looked at whether they met screening criteria for abuse or dependence on alcohol or illicit drugs.”
They found a slightly higher illicit drug use among food stamp recipients. But if you correct for the demographics of people who will be on the program compared to the population at large, that slight risk gets even slighter.
So a few more people on food stamps use some drugs than people not on food stamps. Does this warrant testing everyone? Or is it about further humiliating people who aren’t rich? And why should smoking pot exclude someone from getting food stamps, anyway?
Myth #6: People use food stamps to buy cigarettes and alcohol.
Conservatives have widely circulated stories about people using food stamps to buy cigarettes and alcohol. The Blaze trumpets stories like, “THIS 65-YEAR-OLD CLERK WAS FIRED FOR REFUSING TO SELL CIGARETTES TO A FOOD STAMP CUSTOMER” and outlets like Fox echo it. These kinds of stories are everywhere in the right-wing echo chamber.
Here are the facts: According to USDA, households may use food stamps to buy foods, such as breads and cereals; fruits and vegetables; meats, fish and poultry; and dairy products. Also they can buy seeds and plants which produce food to eat. (In some areas, restaurants can be authorized to accept SNAP benefits from qualified homeless, elderly, or disabled people in exchange for low-cost meals.)
Households may not use food stamps to buy beer, wine, liquor, cigarettes or tobacco; pet foods; soaps, paper products; household supplies; vitamins and medicines; food that will be eaten in the store; hot foods.
So here we are in the worst economy in many decades. It’s more than difficult to find a job. Wages are actually falling for 95% of us. We have the highest income and wealth inequality since just before the depression.
Meanwhile, according to the National Priorities Project the government is handing over $1 trillion a year to the wealthiest and corporations in the form of “tax expenditures.” Then there is that $450 billion a year that the IRS just fails to collect. The corporate foreign-income tax “deferral” has corporations holding as much as $2 trillion of taxable income outside the country. And hedge-fund managers making into the billions each year still get their Romney-style tax breaks.
Yet Republicans are picking on the poorest citizens, lying and smearing them as lazy druggies and blaming them for the high unemployment by saying that $133 a month is keeping them from bothering to look for a job. Why do we put up with this?