House Republicans Dangle the Keys on SNAP (aka, Food Stamps)

September 16th, 2013 at 1:41 pm

The “key dangle” is a surefire strategy in this town—don’t look over there, look over here!  It is in that spirit that I read about two developments last week: the historical record on income concentration among the wealthiest and the House Republicans attack on SNAP, formerly food stamps.

The data on the first point show that:

–95% of the income growth over the past three years have gone to the top 1%;

–while real average income rose 6%, 2009-12, that of the top 1% rose 31% while that of the bottom 99% rose less than 1%;

–the share of national income accruing to  the top 10% is now over 50%, the highest share on record going back to the beginning of the last century.

On the second point, as pointed out in a WaPo oped today:

–SNAP rolls grew sharply over the downturn—spending more than doubled—and the rolls remain historically high;

–almost 48 million recipients, about 14% of the population, receive nutritional support in an average month;

–Benefits average $1.40 per meal and most households on the SNAP rolls are poor or near-poor and include a child, or an elderly or disabled person.

Moreover, as I’ve stressed in numerous posts, the increase in the SNAP rolls is closely linked to the economy, especially the job market (if it was linked to the stock market, believe me, the rolls would be coming down).

And, in fact, as you can see in the figure in the first link above, as the job market has slowly improved, the rolls have stopped rising so quickly and are expected to come down.  As the WaPo notes:

[The program is] working as intended in an economic downturn. According to [the CBO], the weak economy was responsible for 65 percent of the cost growth between 2007 and 2011; 20 percent was because of a stimulus-funded boost in benefits that is set to expire in November. The remainder reflected factors such as higher food prices and lower income among beneficiaries.

The key word is “downturn.”  The key-danglers want to paint recipients of food support as bilking the program—the one that provides them with a buck-and-a-half per meal—instead of working, but when the jobs are there, SNAP-receiving households with able-bodied, non-elderly adults are well connected to the job market.  Among those families, 82% were employed during the year right before or after their SNAP receipt.

In other words, it’s a safety net program designed to ramp up when work disappears so poor families can avoid nutritional privation.  And that’s what it did.

Why hasn’t it ramped down yet?  Because the job market remains weak, something the SNAP critics themselves promulgate every chance they get.  But apparently the part of their brains that think SNAP recipients are willfully avoiding work hasn’t met the part that argues there aren’t enough jobs.

Here it is in a nutshell.  The families getting food stamps did not tank the economy.  They didn’t invent the securitization schemes that inflated the housing bubble that did, in fact, cause the great recession from which we’re still recovering.  That is, from which some of us are still recovering.  The economic elites—the denizens of the penthouse in the income distribution—have more than recovered.  And it would apparently behoove them and the politicians they fund if we looked elsewhere right now.

So, no—dangle the shiny keys all you want.  I’m not going to look over there at the SNAP rolls elevated by the weak job market, instead of over here at historically unprecedented levels of income inequality.  Such key dangles may have worked on you and me when we were babies.  But they don’t anymore.

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