To the editor:
The U.S. House’s passage of a Republican-sponsored bill to reduce food stamp expenditures by $39 billion over 10 years was described by supporters not as an attack on the poor but as a common sense measure to rein in spending. Additionally, bill sponsors said that it was “unfair” not to have a work requirement associated with benefits for “able-bodied” recipients who should be taking “personal responsibility” for their own circumstances.
But context matters, and assessing this bill in the proper context makes defending it less straightforward than these arguments suggest. House Majority Leader Cantor and his allies fail to note in their public statements that since 1996 under President Clinton’s reforms, the program has included work requirements. Under the old bill, governors from both parties could, and did, request waivers that allowed benefits to be extended due to special circumstances (like the Great Recession).
The new bill revokes the possibility of extensions and limits benefits to three months for able-bodied recipients under 50 who are not raising dependent children, regardless of the unemployment rate in their area or lack of access to training. The measures of this bill are not only harsh, they are unnecessary. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that over the next 10 years an improving economy will reduce the number of food stamp recipients by 14 million, even if no action is taken.
Further, I find Mr. Cantor’s framing of this bill as common sense reform to be incomprehensibly tone-deaf when weighed against the backdrop of his party’s favoritism toward big banks throughout and beyond the worst days of the Great Recession. They have shamelessly resisted every attempt to impose the same kind of accountability on monied interests as they now demand from the least among us. Bankers continue to exhibit much of the same behavior that nearly destroyed the economy while their Congressional cheerleaders look the other way and stock up on campaign donations.
Here’s my point. Until Congress also holds big banks accountable for their behavior and insists on reform and strengthened oversights as a precondition for government assistance, they have no business cutting food stamps. If they had been willing to rein in the banks, many of those individuals that the elites now dismiss as “takers” or “moochers” might still be taking “personal responsibility” while working in modest jobs that would never produce six- or seven-figure annual bonuses. Unlike the bankers, those folks haven’t experienced the Great Recession as just a temporary setback. With this bill, the Republican party has once again demonstrated that ideological purity and fealty to the tea party trump fairness.