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Food for thought

Adam Newman | Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Most people who read the Viewpoint section of The Observer do so in the dining hall – a place where one can eat as much as one pleases. The regimented habit of having such large quantities of food readily available every day can make one not appreciate access to food. Moreover, as society battles an unprecedented obesity epidemic, many believe hunger is not an issue in America.
However, nothing could be farther from the truth. According to Feeding America, a domestic hunger-relief charity, approximately one in six Americans go hungry every day. There are many state and federal government programs aimed at alleviating hunger, most notably, the Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as “food stamps.” In 2011, SNAP served 45 million people, or a little more than one out of every seven Americans. The program saw a major increase during the Great Recession and has proven to be an important source of food aid for millions.  
Recently, food stamps have come under tremendous scrutiny. The number of Americans receiving food stamps has increased by 50 percent during the Obama presidency. This has created a major debate over the role of who should receive assistance and for how long. The Republican House budget makes draconian cuts to these benefits by cutting the programs by $135 billion, or roughly 20 percent over 10 years. Specifics have not been offered in order to avoid political pushback, but regardless of whether they are benefit cuts or eligibility changes, the poor, elderly, children and disabled will suffer.
The way many in the political realm and in the media justify these cuts is by suggesting those who are on public assistance, such as food stamps, are “lazy” and “irresponsible.” Ronald Reagan is known for referring to the “welfare queen,” a story he spoke about during the 1980 presidential campaign: “She has 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards. … She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income alone is over $150,000.” This attack, which was a wild exaggeration of a woman convicted for $8,000 in welfare fraud in 1977, enabled an idea of a system where welfare recipients did not need to work and could receive “Cadillac benefits.”
This is also a myth. The average food stamp benefit is approximately $287 per month, or $1.40 per meal. As for work, 47 percent of benefits go to children, 16 percent go to the elderly and 20 percent go to the disabled non-elderly, according to Department of Agriculture data. Moreover, fairly little fraud exists in SNAP. A recent Department of Agriculture study found that between 2009 and 2011, only 1.3 percent of all food stamps were sold for cash.
In reality, the welfare queens receiving money through the government are not those on food aid. Every year, in the same legislation used to pass food stamps (known as the farm bill), the government gives $20 billion in subsidies to farmers. Many argue that, due to the volatility of farming, the government should help small farmers to avoid major losses. This argument has some merit. But what does not have merit is that 75 percent of all farm aid goes to the top 10 percent of farmers. This is simply corporate welfare. The government should only cut the small amounts of money poor people receive through food stamps when the large amounts big business receives are cut.
Ultimately, the issue with food stamps, similar to other government benefits, is everyone envisions beneficiaries in ways that accord with their political ideology. Republicans largely view food stamp recipients as “takers” that could work harder and live more frugally. Democrats see food stamp recipients as good, hard-working Americans who are largely in their situation due to bad luck and a bad economy. Both types exist, although reason tends to make us believe the reality is much more complicated.
Even still, any reasonable person would prefer to see America’s children fed, even if it means that a few people who do not deserve aid receive it anyway. Unfortunately, Republicans do not see it this way, as signified in egregious cuts to SNAP and other food aid for the poor. But while they may be able to boast about cutting “wasteful” spending, whether or not Republicans can stomach the consequences of their beliefs is yet to be seen.

Adam Newman is a senior
studying political science. He can be reached at [email protected]
The views expressed in this
column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.