When Republicans get into office, they always try to cut back on food stamps. No doubt they'd eliminate it altogether if it wasn't for Big Agriculture, which lobbies strenuously for keeping it. Democrats, on the other hand, always want to expand the program so, you know, poor people can eat. As Paul Waldman noted in his Washington Post column yesterday, the tight margins-- not to mention the GOP veto powering the Senate-- make legislation next to impossible, "but the executive branch has the power to make real changes by itself. And some of these changes can, if done right, alter the kind of expectations we have from government." He cited a good example: a decision "to update the Thrifty Food Plan, which determines how much a person needs in food stamps to eat a healthy diet. The result is that average benefits in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) will rise from $121 a month per person to $157 a month, the largest single increase the program has ever seen. Although that’s just a little over a dollar a day, for a family of four that would mean almost $150 more a month, which could be the difference between everyone eating and not. From The Post:
Nearly 90 percent of SNAP recipients report running out of benefits by the end of the month, said Lisa Davis, senior vice president of hunger charity Share Our Strength-- a figure that illustrates the disconnect between the program calculations and its recipients’ lived experience. “This outmoded food plan has limited SNAP’s purchasing power and made unrealistic assumptions about the cost of food, the time it takes to plan and prepare meals and the constraints faced by time-strapped working families,” Davis said. “An updated Thrifty Food Plan would better reflect the way families live today, where working households do not have unlimited hours to prepare food from scratch and modern dietary guidelines advise a wider variety of foods.”
Trump, as you can probably imagine, had a very different approach. His hateful appointees "spent time trying to figure out how to cut food stamp benefits. They tried to impose strict work requirements to force recipients to navigate a bureaucratic maze in order to access benefits. They tried to force states to reduce eligibility. And they tried to require asset testing-- for instance, are you so rich you own a functioning automobile and should therefore be ineligible for food stamps?-- to kick up to 3 million people off the program.
There are two questions here: What are the basic needs everyone has that should be supported as a matter of course, as opposed to things you might not be able to access depending on how much money you have? And if we’re going to give help to poor people, how many should we help?
There is a category of benefits we all (mostly) agree that everyone should have. They include an education through high school, police and fire protection, drinkable water, and, well, not much else. Though they may all be apportioned unequally in reality, in the abstract no political party is arguing that you should have to pay a yearly subscription fee to access 911 in an emergency, or that all public schools should be abolished.
Then there are things that liberals think should be part of that basic floor of reasonable human existence but conservatives usually don’t, including shelter, health insurance, food, child care, and paid family leave. The conservative approach is that we should provide some help for people to access some (but not all) of these things, but we should 1) restrict it to those who are utterly desperate and not merely struggling, and 2) make accessing the benefits as difficult, cumbersome, time-consuming and shame-inducing as possible, all to discourage as many as possible from doing so, lest too many become too dependent on government.
We should hope the Biden administration not only increases these kinds of benefits, but works hard to remove as many bureaucratic impediments as possible. And there are already signs that’s becoming a more central part of liberal thinking on these issues.
For instance, just a couple of years ago school districts were worrying about how they could punish kids who had trouble paying for school lunches. But the current trend is to just give free lunch to everyone no matter what their income. This has already been in place in some major cities, and this year all students in California schools will get free lunch. What started as a temporary measure during the pandemic (made possible with infusions of federal cash) is now being continued in places around the country.
The idea is, first, it’s important that everyone has enough to eat, and second, if you just give free lunch to everyone you eliminate the expense, time, and hassle of figuring out who is and isn’t eligible and managing the payment program. If we’re lucky, universal free school lunch will become something so obviously worthwhile that no one even tries to get rid of it.
We may be quite a ways from that, and every new Republican administration will try to reduce whatever benefits they can. But the further this administration goes in raising that floor, the harder it will be to pull it back down. Which is why the Biden administration should push as far and fast as it can in expanding both the “safety net”-- what you access in a moment of need-- and the menu of services everyone expects government to provide all the time.
I spoke to two Blue America-endorsed candidates in New York about this, Queen Johnson in Brooklyn and Steven Holden in central New York (Syracuse area). Holden is running against conservative Republican John Katko, who sometimes pretends to be a "moderate." Holden told me last night that his belief "is that it is a categorical imperative that we take care of the least among us. My district contains the 18th poorest city in America (Syracuse), and conservatives in the Republicans and Democratic parties are to blame. Before 1980, a single-earner household could support a nuclear family and provide for all their needs. To address poverty, we need a holistic view of economic justice. This means strengthening unions, ensuring all communities have access to capital, expanding education, and eliminating student debt. If you do these, we will have less of a need for other programs. That is what Republicans like John Katko and conservative Democrats like Fran Conole just do not get. Katko consistently has voted against any assistance to struggling families, and Conole has done little-to-nothing in our community to better the lives of communities in need. We must reinvest in people. Until we get to that day, we need a full investment in programs like SNAP."
Queen Johnson, who is taking on Hakeem "Next Speaker" Jeffries, sees it much the same. "Growing up in poverty," she told me, "I always knew I wanted to get my community out of poverty. I studied Economic Analysis at Brooklyn College and I learned that by providing all people with access to basic social services which includes education, healthcare, adequate food, sanitation, shelter and clean water are ways to reduce poverty. America is one of the richest countries and we have enough to help out all people who are in need not just the very few. We must prioritize and demand those basic needs be met for the people. I hope the Biden administration not only increases the benefits that the everyday people need, but works hard to remove as many bureaucratic impediments as possible."