The War Over Food Stamps

Although people tend to associate the Food Stamp Program (FSP) with Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society,” or lump it with the domestic initiatives of Richard Nixon (whom Noam Chomsky referred to as “our last liberal president”), the program actually goes back more than 70 years.  It was launched on May 16, 1939.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently made news by reporting that 40 million Americans utilized food stamps during the month of August, a 17-percent increase over the same period in the previous year.  Approximately one in eight adults and one in four children regularly use food stamps, and the program is growing at 20,000 people per day.

Also, the FSP has changed its name, apparently having outgrown the pejorative term “food stamps.”  It’s now called SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).

To qualify for SNAP, your gross (pre-tax) family income must fall at or below 130-percent of the current federal poverty level, which, in 2009, was $2,389 for a family of four, and $1,174 for a single person, and you can’t exceed $2,000 in “valuable assets” (not counting your house and, usually, one vehicle).

While media coverage of the increase has focused mainly on the “human interest” angle of the recession—home repossessions, families being uprooted, no jobs, no prospects—there’s another component to this story, one that involves conflicting ideologies, intellectual integrity and the critical role the federal government.

Among the states recording the largest increases in SNAP benefits were those “red states” whose political leaders not only regularly and vociferously denounce the federal government—government spending, government intervention, government everything—but who, in fact, have made solid careers out of doing so.

Yet you don’t see these red state folks stand on their hind legs and praise the government for establishing a program that literally puts food on the table.  Instead, these conservative/libertarian pols continue to lash out against the feds, continue to demonize them, convinced that such mindless propaganda is going to resonate with the voters.

Consider:  Texas and Florida each had more than a 25-percent increase in food stamp usage, Wyoming (a “rugged individualist” state if there ever was one) saw a 40-percent increase, and the Idaho Statesman glumly reported that Idaho had a 43-percent bump, the largest increase in the country, and more than twice the national average.

In the 1990s, Newt Gingrich made a name for himself—became the voice of the Republican Party, had his face plastered on the cover of Time magazine—by railing against the federal government’s paternalism, “pork,” and creeping socialism.  It was later revealed that his congressional district had received an inordinate amount of federal funds (its per capita ratio was the second or third highest in the country).

Not to pounce on an obvious target, but Sarah Palin regularly criticizes organized labor, accusing unions of having damaged our economy with its greed and corruption.  Yet her husband Todd was for many years a rank-and-file member of the Steelworkers union, supporting his family with the decent wages and good benefits that only a union contract can provide.

Additionally, Palin continues to draw rousing cheers from audiences around the country by defiantly insisting that the federal government stay out of our lives.  This from a resident of Alaska, the state with the highest per capita federal assistance in the nation—a state that, some economists have noted, likely couldn’t survive without federal welfare.

In its depiction of Hell, Dante’s Inferno (1321) has each descending level represent a progressively more heinous or repugnant sin.  There are nine levels of Hell in the Inferno—with the ninth and deepest being the one that holds the worst people of all, history’s most notorious traitors and betrayers: Brutus, Cassius, Judas Escariot.

And while it makes sense that the seventh level is inhabited by vile murderers, it’s the eighth level that makes us smile; it’s the eighth level that makes us want to stand up and salute this brilliant Italian poet from 700 years ago.

The eighth level of Hell is reserved for hypocrites and liars.  That’s correct….the hypocrites and liars are relegated to a depth even lower than the murderers.  One wonders how Dante would rate Mama Grizzly and her secessionist-minded First Dude.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor”. He served 9 terms as president of AWPPW Local 672. He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net










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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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