Thanksgiving is just around the corner, a time of year when the thoughts of many Americans turn to those less fortunate. Conservatives on Capitol Hill, emboldened by the Republicans’ outsize victory in the midterm elections, have turned their thoughts in that direction too—though their attention is one of the few things struggling Americans don't need.
“It’s never too early to start on the next farm bill,” Rep. Mike Conaway, the next chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, told Politico. Considering that the legislation won't be up for renewal until 2019, the Texas Republican is taking preemptive aim at one of conservatives’ favorite love-to-hate federal programs: food stamps (officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).
You may recall the bruising and painful debate over the last farm bill earlier this year—and in particular, the aggressive campaign by conservatives in the House to cut a whopping $40 billion from SNAP. Conaway was among the majority in the House that voted for $20 billion in cuts, an amount that got reduced to $8.6 billion in a compromise with the Democrat-controlled Senate.
But while politicians continue to focus on the price tag of the social safety net, a new report released this week by Oxfam America and Feeding America adds to the growing body of evidence suggesting that what should be an oxymoron in the richest country on earth—to be working poor—has instead become an intractable way of life for millions.
The new report offers a portrait of the Americans who must resort to private food charities like food banks to feed their families every month. “While many of us think of those using food banks as destitute or homeless, the reality is much different,” the authors write.
Despite such signs that hunger is a concern for a broad swath of voters, politicians like Conaway can’t wait to slash away at SNAP, although he’s careful to couch his bloodlust in the rather bloodless bureaucrat-ese conservatives so often use to downplay their radical agenda.
“We ought to do a soup-to-nuts review of the entire program,” he told Politico. “What works? What doesn’t work? Are there moral hazards baked into the system? Where can the system do a better job? You spend $80 billion [per year] on a program, it ought to work.”
Never mind the program is working. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that “SNAP has one of the most rigorous quality control systems of any public benefit program. Its error rates stand at record lows; fewer than 2 percent of SNAP benefits are issued to households that do not meet all of the program’s eligibility requirements.”
Still, as Conaway’s allusion to “moral hazards” suggests, conservatives are obstinate in their belief that the food stamp program is rife with cheats, and a shadowy horde of Americans are loafing about, gobbling up hard-earned taxpayer dollars.
“What I’d like to be able to say is, at the end of the effort, that the food stamp program is now judged on the success basis, not on how long you can stay on the program,” Conaway told Politico. In other words, success should be determined by how fast SNAP beneficiaries “can get off [the program] and get back on their own two feet and take care of their families.”
There’s only one problem with that timeworn, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps logic: Conaway and his fellow conservatives are making it increasingly hard, if not impossible, for low-income Americans to do just that.
According to the Oxfam–Feeding America report, some 54 percent of all households that sought help from a food pantry or the like had at least one member who had been working in the last year; 20 percent had at least two members who were employed. Yet only 17 percent of households with full-time employment were able to earn more than $30,000 in a year.
Who are these people? They’re single mothers like Noel, who manages a fast-food restaurant full-time and also attends school while struggling to raise her three kids. Or single dad Derek, who works in security for the St. Louis transit system. Or Cary and Nick, who are both ski patrollers in Portland, Oregon, and the parents of two kids. “Despite the fact that each of us worked and worked hard, we did not have the resources to buy our children the nutritious, healthy food they needed to grow strong,” Cary says in the report, talking about the couple’s decision to seek help at a local food pantry. “It was difficult to walk through those doors. But ultimately it was about my children and my family’s future.”
Then there’s Jeff and his wife, both college educated and raising their two kids in North Carolina. During the recession, the only work Jeff could find was a minimum-wage job. “I was lucky to have any work at all, but minimum wage isn’t enough to support a family of four,” Jeff says. “We tried to trim our budgets anywhere we could, but we still couldn’t find the money we needed to feed our kids.”
Jeff’s family qualified for SNAP, and like half of the households with employed adults that responded to the survey, they receive food stamps (in addition to relying on private charities). Jeff even echoes Conaway when he says, “Food stamps are a critical resource that help families like mine get back on their feet again, and on the road to a better life.”
The dismal reality, though, is that for many Americans, that road is in as bad a shape as our ever crumbling infrastructure.
“Compared to other wealthy nations, the United States has the highest proportion of workers in low-wage jobs,” the Oxfam–Feeding America report states. “Overall, since the recession, lower-wage jobs have grown by 2.3 million while medium- and higher-wage jobs actually contracted by 1.2 million.” The U.S. Labor Department predicts that nearly half of the 15 million jobs the economy is likely to add over the next decade will be low-wage.
This is the dirty little secret of our lumbering economic recovery, which goes a long way toward explaining why, despite falling unemployment rates, the rate of food insecurity among U.S. households has remained stubbornly high, close to the dramatic spike that occurred after the economic collapse in 2008.
Analysts say raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour would lift 5 million or more of the nation’s working poor out of poverty—but don’t count on conservatives like Conaway to get behind that anytime soon.