Here are a few numbers to consider: In North Carolina, 22 percent of the population is African-American, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and numbers from the Department of Agriculture show that 18 percent of the state’s residents experienced food insecurity in the same year.
If you’re thinking in political terms, as someone running for a Senate seat might be inclined to do, alienating such a significant chunk of the electorate is probably a bad idea. But when it comes to “firing up the base” and “serving up red meat,” demographics be damned—which may explain why Republican politicians are so often inclined to say derogatory things about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the 47 million Americans who rely on the benefit.
North Carolina GOP Senate candidate Greg Brannon is the latest would-be elected official to critique the program in inflammatory terms, comparing food stamps to slavery.
"The answer is the Department of Agriculture should go away at the federal level," the candidate said in an interview with the North Carolina Tea Party. "And now 80% of the farm bill is food stamps. That enslaves people. What you want to do—it's crazy but it's true—is teach people to fish so they can fish. When you're at the behest of someone else, you are actually a slave to them."
Like Georgia Rep. Jack Kingston, who recently suggested that poor students should sweep the floor to earn meals at school because “there is, in fact, no such thing as a free lunch,” Brannon’s comments follow what’s becoming a standard script, one that amounts to We don’t want to help feed the poor because [insert economic truism here].
So while conservatives keep rambling about free lunches and teaching people to fish, what's the progressive case to be made for social policies that tend toward a chicken in every pot? There’s plenty of research that shows the broad economic stimulus that food-stamp spending provides—the factoid that frequently gets thrown around is that one SNAP dollar spent amounts to $1.70 of economic activity—but what about public health? A new paper published in Health Affairs highlights the stark reality of poverty, showing that Americans who are “enslaved” by food stamps are significantly more likely to end up in the hospital at the end of the month, when their benefits run out (so the slavery ends, I guess, but just temporarily, until the next check arrives?) because of hypoglycemia. Low-income people in California, where the research was conducted, were found to be 27 percent more likely to be hospitalized because of hypoglycemia in the last week of the month than in the first.
As Matthew O’Brien writes in The Atlantic, this isn’t just because poor people are more likely to be unhealthy. Researchers also looked at hospitalizations for appendicitis, a condition unrelated to diet. “So there shouldn't be any end-of-the-month increase for low-income people if tight budgets are the problem. There wasn't,” O’Brien writes. The data showed no difference between high- and low-income groups in the frequency of appendicitis from week to week.
So if anything is akin to being “enslaved,” to use Brannon’s terminology, it’s the condition of poverty, not the so often hampered program that helps fight it. But the economic violence of poverty is not equal to the physical atrocity of slavery, which is why it’s a cheap, offensive metaphor to begin with.