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September 22, 2013

EDITORIAL: GOP embraces false images in attack on food stamps

Vast majority of recipients are indeed needy

A lot of congratulatory back-slapping undoubtedly filled the halls of the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday.

That congressional chamber voted, by a narrow 217-210 margin, to cut $40 billion from the federal food assistance program. Often referred to as “food stamps” and now formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP), it is too frequently characterized as a fraud-filled system of government handouts to those who don’t really need it.

That is the image projected by the bill’s proponents, despite their public comments. “This bill is designed to give people a hand when they need it most, and most people don’t choose to be on food stamps. Most people want a job … they want what we want,” said Eric Cantor, leader of the House majority party, the Republicans, who produced all 217 “aye” votes. (Fifteen Republicans joined all 195 all Democrats in opposing the measure.)

So, when the phrases “food stamps” or “SNAP program” get mentioned, what image likely pops into the minds of those 217 lawmakers?

The elderly? The disabled? Kids? They comprise the vast majority of the nation’s 47 million SNAP recipients.

Or is it the “surfer dude” in California who uses his SNAP benefits to buy sushi and lobster, as shown on Fox News? Or is it the 10 business owners in Baltimore indicted on charges of stealing more than $7 million from the SNAP program? Or is it drug-abusing, freeloading slackers unwilling to work?

Fraud, waste and abuse in any government program absolutely should be briskly policed and eliminated. No question. The SNAP program, though, is not rampant with those vices, despite the poster-boy status of “surfer dude” or the Baltimore grocers accused of scamming the system. The level of fraud amounted to 1.3 percent of SNAP transactions in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The program has indeed grown, as its critics contend, from $36 billion in 2008 to $78 billion last year. The reason is the Great Recession. Need grew, too. The economy shed 8 million jobs in that span, and though a recovery is under way, the hole created by the downturn was deep and the climb out is frustratingly long. Many Americans saw not only their jobs, but their entire vocations wiped out. For some, their options have not been enviable — learn a new trade, take a lower-paying job in the meantime. Easier said than done in many cases.

A provision in the House food-stamp measure would limit benefits to able-bodied adults to three months, and require those people to find work or enroll in a state jobs program; the bill’s backers emphasize that clause was included in the 1996 welfare reform law. The philosophical concept, provide work-get paid, is obvious, but that 1996 requirement was crafted in more robust economic times. The prospects of an unemployed adult finding a job paying enough money to avoid the need for food stamps are lower than in ’96. The July unemployment rate in Terre Haute was 10.5 percent.

The House plan would remove 3.8 million people from the SNAP list. Yet, even without the lawmakers’ tactic, the food stamp program would decrease by 14 million people during the next decade as the recovery continues, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. That systematic cut carries less political appeal than Thursday’s vote by the House reps, though.

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