Compassionate Conservatism and Food Stamps Just Don’t Mix

The federal SNAP program is working—so why do so many lawmakers want to change it?
(Photo: Juan Monino/Getty Images)
Feb 23, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

If the conservative attack on the federal food stamp program constitutes “compassion,” you’ve got to wonder how these lawmakers define cruelty.

A bill introduced last week by one Republican state senator in New York that would bar food stamp recipients from purchasing “luxury food items,” such as steak and lobster, with their benefits grabbed headlines—as did a similar measure put forth in Missouri last year. But it’s only the most recent effort by conservatives to undermine the arguably lifesaving federal assistance program that more than 45 million Americans rely on to help put food on the table.

Using the formal name for the food stamp program, state Sen. Patty Ritchie issued a statement following the introduction of her bill: “The goal of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is to help low-income consumers make wise and healthy food choices—however, in New York State, SNAP beneficiaries are able to use their taxpayer-funded [electronic benefit transfer] cards to purchase things like soda, candy, cake, and other types of junk foods and luxury items. Many of these items aren’t just unhealthy, they’re also expensive. This legislation would not only help low-income families and individuals stretch their food budgets further and promote health and nutrition, it would also protect taxpayers from abuse of a program that’s intended to help those who have fallen on hard times.”

Ritchie’s rationale, on the whole, follows the conservative playbook of making policy demands that are essentially absurdities masquerading as common sense, cruelty disguised as compassion, with perhaps a few morsels of a good idea buried in there somewhere.

Related: Feds May Force SNAP Retailers to Stock Healthier Foods

To be sure, earlier this year the bipartisan National Commission on Hunger issued a set of 20 recommendations that included adding soda—the single biggest source of empty calories contributing to our nationwide obesity epidemic—to the list of items prohibited from being purchased with SNAP benefits. That would seem like a good idea.

But Ritchie’s purported concern for the health of “low-income consumers” is undermined by her subtle telegraphing of some of the uglier tropes that have long been at the root of conservatives’ decades-long antipathy toward food stamps and other forms of government assistance. From her patronizing use of wise as in “ choices” to her evocation of rampant “abuse” of the program, she plays on a number of popular misconceptions while paradoxically suggesting that scheming SNAP recipients are smart enough to cheat the system but too dumb to make smart food choices.

Another pernicious stereotype: All too often, food stamp recipients are out-of-control drug users.

GOP lawmakers in Washington have introduced legislation that would allow states to implement random drug testing as a requirement for receiving SNAP benefits. “This is a compassionate way to try and help these people who have issues, instead of turning the head,” Rep. Robert Aderholt, R–Alaska, sponsor of the bill, told the Associated Press. Yes, “these people.”

A number of conservative governors, including Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, have asked the feds for the freedom to make drug testing a condition of receiving food stamps. But similar programs in states such as Tennessee have largely demonstrated not only that recipients appear no more likely to abuse drugs than the general population, but also that drug testing is a big waste of money to ferret out a relative handful of drug addicts.

For its part, North Carolina passed a law in 2013 requiring drug testing for food stamp recipients, implemented last August. The results of the first batch of tests? Data released early this month found that 0.3 percent of those who were screened tested positive for drugs.

Whether we’re talking about denying SNAP recipients the ability to “splurge” on steak once in a while or subjecting “these people” to drug tests, it all seems to be an effort on the part of conservatives to find a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist.

After all, as the SNAP to Health initiative reports, thanks to improved technology such as the electronic benefit transfer cards, “fraud within the SNAP system is extremely low,” currently at some of the lowest rates in the history of the program.

As conservative attacks on the federal food stamp program appear sure to mount, it would seem a good time to remind ourselves of just who benefits from SNAP. More than 75 percent of benefits go to households with children, while nearly 12 percent go to households with disabled persons, and 10 percent go to households with senior citizens.

“In fact, more than half of SNAP recipients are children or the elderly,” SNAP to Health reports. “For the remaining working-age individuals, many of them are currently employed. At least 40 percent of all SNAP beneficiaries live in a household with earnings,” while only 10 percent receive cash welfare.