Kicking the Poor to the Curb

With the threat of rising milk prices hanging over their heads, Congressional negotiators have restarted talks in the hopes of passing a new farm bill. And this should have Americans who rely on federal food and nutrition programs quaking in their boots.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – known as SNAP – has been a chief target of both Republicans and Democrats, a fact obscured by the GOP’s attempt to eviscerate the program by cutting between $20 billion and $40 billion over the next 10 years.

Democrats, for their part, voted to cut $4 billion. This would come on top of $1 billion in automatic reductions that were set to take place Nov. 1 when the food stamp increase included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act expired. That expiration hit an estimated 47 million Americans, including 22 million children, according to advocates.

And while many in the Democratic Party have responded with a sense of outrage, there remains among the party’s leaders a willingness to trim social-safety net and social-insurance programs. That’s because the debate in Washington remains focused on the wrong goals.

Washington remains focused on the deficit, which means that rather than opening the spigot of federal spending to speed job creation and attempt to slow growing income inequality – forget reversing it, that has long been off the table in Washington – the debate will follow the familiar lines:

Democrats will seek “revenue increases” – i.e., taxes, a word official Washington finds abhorrent. Republicans will oppose any increase, especially on the richest Americans.

Republicans will demand cuts to the so-called “entitlement” programs – a phrase that should be banned from use because it does not accurately portray what these programs do – and other safety-net programs, while pushing for massive increases in military spending.

Nothing will get done – which may be the best of the possible outcomes – and the debate will continue. This will allow members of both parties to go to their funders and claim that they held the line, that their defensive efforts were the only thing standing in the way of complete political Armageddon.

It would be funny if the impact of this political charade were not already being felt by America’s poor.

“Given the fact that benefits are already inadequate for many families, these cuts will be particularly painful,” Adele LaTourette, director of the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition, said in a press release.

Anti-hunger groups are worried that food pantries and soup kitchens, which already are stretched thin, will have to pick up the slack – especially if the Republican House cuts are put in place. The Congressional Budget Office, according to the Washington Post, put the number of people who could be left without government help at “as many as 3.8 million.”

That, Maura Daly of Feeding America, a network of the nation’s food banks, told the Post, could mean a doubling of the number of people who rely on food banks for help.

“Charities cannot fill the gap for the cuts being proposed to SNAP,” “We are very concerned about the impact on the charitable system.”

The food bank system was never intended to serve as the nation’s primary nutritional safety net. But beginning with the Carter administration and continuing through every presidential administration since, private groups have had no choice but to step up as government assistance is cut and made the rhetorical foil for some mythical free-market system in which private enterprise makes everyone happy.

It doesn’t. Instead, it chews up people and resources and spits out what it does not need. The safety net, which was never a perfect response to the vicissitudes of the market, at least helped ameliorate those fluctuations. That, as I see it, is government’s role – to protect its citizens from harm, which means ensuring that everyone has a basic standard of living, which means that the people who benefit from capitalism, the obscenely rich, pay to support those they otherwise would kick to the curb.

That’s not how our system works – and never has. Instead, the moneyed classes receive support from a government that has no interest in aiding the nation’s most vulnerable. We bail out the banks, support the military-contracting industry, the oil industry, big Pharma, the insurance companies, etc., and then we cry that the deficit is too high and use that as a justification to cut food stamps and housing assistance. We allow milk-price supports to rise, which will hurt small farmers and consumers, but continue to dump large amounts of money on factory farms. And so it goes, as Billy Pilgrim, might say.

Large-scale systemic change is needed, but that is going to take time. In the meantime, the lines at soup kitchens and food pantries are likely to grow, along with milk and other commodity prices, which is probably the saddest commentary one could write about America in the 21st century.

Hank Kalet is a poet and journalist in New Jersey. He covers economic issues for NJ Spotlight and teaches at Rutgers University and Middlesex County College. Email,; blog,; Twitter, @newspoet41.

From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2013

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