A Profile that Paints a Far Too Benign Picture of the Republicans’ Proposed SNAP Changes

September 25th, 2013 at 3:23 pm

The Washington Post today published a profile of Florida Republican Rep. Steve Southerland, focusing on his attack on the SNAP — formerly food stamps —program. It’s a piece I found interesting, even inspiring at points; as I read it, I began to see the Congressman in a different light. Unfortunately, the piece suffers from such mammoth omissions that it is ultimately quite misleading.

While it’s easy to portray Rep. Southerland and the SNAP bill the House just passed as waging an ideological war not just on the poor but on the nutritionally deprived poor, he seems truly motivated by the belief that people ought to work to improve their well-being and that of their family. I agree and I suspect not only most WaPo readers, but most poor families, including those on SNAP, would agree as well. The article actually features the Congressman interacting with such folks (SNAP recipients in a job training program).

So, if you’re a member of Congress and that’s where your heart and your head are, it should lead you to craft legislation that helps create workplace opportunities for able-bodied, adult SNAP recipients (most SNAP recips, btw, are elderly or kids; of those able to work, the majority are quite connected to the job market). And that’s what the profile suggests Southerland and his colleagues have done, only to face knee-jerk opposition from D’s.

Here’s how the WaPo describes the bill, making it sound like Southerland really pulled his punches to come with a mild, benign set of “reforms”:

Even though he believed in a 40-hour workweek, his proposal would mandate only 20. Even though he wanted it to be a national requirement, states would be able to implement or ignore it. There would be exemptions for the elderly, the disabled and mothers with children under 1.

Sounds benign, right? Here’s what the bill they passed actually does:

–Allows states to throw unemployed parents and their children off of SNAP if the parents want a job or a slot in a job-training program but none are available.  Yes, that’s voluntary from the states’ perspective, but for the first time in the history of food stamps, their bill incentivizes states to reduce the rolls, by letting them keep 50% of the federal funds that would otherwise pay for food for the poor and use those funds for anything else they want, including tax cuts.

–In areas with high unemployment, states now can waive SNAPs three month time limit on food assistance for unemployed childless adults.  This bill eliminates that right.  It requires that such individuals be tossed off SNAP after 90 days if they can’t find a job, regardless of how hard they’re looking and how tough the job market is.

–Remarkably, the bill also eliminates food assistance to certain low-paid working families. For example, it would terminate benefits for working families whose gross income is slightly above the SNAP eligibility level (130% of poverty, or $2,000 a month for a parent with two kids) but who incur high child-care costs and thus have disposable income below the poverty line.

According to the non-partisan CBO, the House bill would deny SNAP benefits to 3.8 million people next year, including adults who want to work but can’t find a job. It is for these reasons — not, as the article suggests, kneejerk defense of the poor — that Democrats opposed the bill (in fact, Senate D’s have also proposed SNAP cuts, though far smaller and more surgical than those in the House bill).

Look, this whole SNAP/work debate is really miscast. Yes, the SNAP rolls have climbed sharply and yes, they remain historically elevated. But as I’ve stressed in numerous posts, that increase is primarily about the economy, especially the job market, which was terribly weak and is only slowly getting better (believe me, it the SNAP rolls were linked to the stock market, they’d be coming down).

Insisting SNAP recipients find jobs or lose their benefits cannot legitimately be labeled a “work requirement” if all it does is cut people off when they can’t find a job.

In fact, as the job market has begun to improve, the SNAP rolls have stabilized. And, according to predictions by CBO, as the economic recovery proceeds, the rolls will decline such that by 2019, the costs of the program are expected to fall to their 1995 levels as a share of the economy. In the WaPo piece, however, this non-partisan forecast is presented as just another dimension of the political argument, with no acknowledgement of the CBO forecast:

[House Democrats] disagreed not only with Southerland’s proposal but also with his diagnosis of the problem and with his facts.

He said food stamp spending was “growing into oblivion”; Democrats said it would decrease just as quickly once the economy improved.

Bottom line, SNAP expanded to meet the nutritional needs of the poor in the deepest recession since the depression — a good example of a countercyclical program at work. As the job market recovers, the caseloads are expected to recede as current recipients find jobs and earn more. That’s not a Democrat assumption; it’s a statistical one based on a long history.

Like I said, Rep. Southerland comes across as well-intentioned. But he is ill-informed in ways the profile neglects to mention, and in doing so, the piece casts his reforms as far more benign than they are.

SNAP isn’t broken. What’s not working right now is the low-wage job market, and punishing the victims of that underperforming sector with these harsh, radical changes to the SNAP program will only deepen their poverty.

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15 comments in reply to "A Profile that Paints a Far Too Benign Picture of the Republicans’ Proposed SNAP Changes"

  1. Jill SH says:

    “Even though he believed in a 40-hour workweek, his proposal would mandate only 20.”

    My guess is that there are probably a lot of folks out there needing food stamps who also believe in a 40-hour work week, but have to settle for a 20-hour one, if they find one at all.

  2. Mike DC says:

    It is also noteworthy that Rep Southerland, while professing Christian values on the family’s funeral home handouts, seems to have lost the core values “I was hungry and you fed me”.

    Also, it’s worth noting that Steve Southerland is feeding at the trough of politics to the tune of $76,000… something that is missing from this “beat sweetener” by Eli Saslow of the Washington Post.

    Florida Center for Investigative Reporting (Sept 13, 2013)

  3. purple says:

    Republicans hate the social safety net because it provides a wage floor. All these proposals are designed to drive down wages. If a business can get a SNAP worker to ‘volunteer’ for 20 hours why are they going to raise wages ? They won’t.

    The reactionary right even hates it when homeless people beg, because if a person can make $20 a day begging then why work for minimum wage at the local uncompetitive factory/small business ? They are thoroughly awful people.

  4. mitakeet says:

    It was/is a depression! If it weren’t for the shreds of safety net, we would have had soup lines for several years now. Calling it a ‘recession’, even the ‘Great Recession’ is a smoke screen to attempt to minimize how much damage the Wall Street elites did to our economy.

  5. Fred Donaldson says:

    Suppose we raise the question of what are economic human values in America. Would it be wrong to guarantee everyone in the nation “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (not profit, but happiness)?”

    The guarantee of a minimum standard of living for all – whether you work or not – is almost like insuring life itself, enabling liberty of action, and allowing some chance for happiness, instead of perpetual financial misery.

    The rich oil countries do it, and most industrialized nations have safety nets that just about accomplish the same thing. Work becomes a way to rise out of near poverty, not a way to barely stay alive.

    The worship of money somehow seems evil, and the appreciation of decent lives for our fellow Americans seems a better starting point for USA economic philosophy.

  6. Perplexed says:

    So if something like Southerland’s plan were to go through, how would we apportion the blame for the increased poverty, malnutrition, higher health care costs, and lower educational achievements between anarchists like Southerland and his ilk and economists who created and support this coercive environment?

    In any actual, market, I can post my “offer” even a tiny fraction of a percent lower than the current lowest offer and thereby move to the “front of the line” and be the very next one to “sell my product” at the next market transaction. People selling their labor have no such option. The so-called “market” can continue transacting business at a higher rate than they would charge while just ignoring their offer. This is illegal and those engaging in this activity would face criminal prosecution and penalties in any other market for manipulating the “market.” Yet labor, the “commodity” of the 99%, is somehow “excluded” from anti-trust laws and this perversion of the so-called “market” is allowed to continue, thereby putting millions of people in the position to not only face poverty, starvation and homelessness for themselves and their families, but also to face the coercion and humiliation of anarchists like Southerland and his Washington Post groupies. This is tyranny of the majority at work in practice. Our Constitution was supposed to have prevented it; but our legislators, supported by our politicized courts have found a way to subvert these protections, but only with the aid of “economic science” and its proclamations that what exists, after these manipulations, could still be called a “labor market.” If economists stopped supporting this ruse, these people might immediately have access to an actual “labor market” and the “insufficient demand” problem would need to find an alternative solution that doesn’t include forcing a powerless minority to absorb the entire costs by being forced to keep their labor out of the market. This ruse could not survive without “economic science,” which has never been held to account for the damage that accrues to these people that stems directly from their manipulation of the definition of what constitutes a “market.”

    It is economists that “set the stage” for someone like Southerland, who inherited the family business and has thus always had a place to “sell” his labor, to characterize those who have been denied access to any “market” for their labor as people who need to be told by him to “Make sure your belt and your shoes match.” Regardless of how hard he worked, it appears there must be something very toxic in the silver that these silver spoons are made of; we’ll never know how hard these people that don’t know how to match their shoes and belt would have worked given the same opportunities (and prices) to sell their labor for. But he’s not the only bad guy, he needed lots of help from economists, politicians, and judges to be in a position to so thoroughly humiliate these people. Until economists start to use a less malleable definition of what constitutes a “market,” these people really don’t stand chance; it has nothing to “work” unless you have equal access to the market to sell your labor.

    But maybe Southerland has unintentionally pointed to a possible mitigation of the problem. While his solution is coercion of a powerless group of people into working for, at most, $600/80hours = $7.50 per hour (less child care costs for many), if the “plan” were simply “adjusted” to permitting these people to “work or volunteer” for 20 hours/week at the median wage, there’s a pretty good chance that many (probably most) of these fashion-clueless people (at least the ones that are not elderly, disabled, or children (which probably wouldn’t leave a lot of them) would be willing to work pretty hard given a place to “sell” their labor. Maybe the mothers in this group could even pay for day care while they “worked” instead of taking care of their children (which I guess doesn’t constitute “work” according to Southerland and his ilk). Maybe we should ask him and see how serious his commitment to the value of work really is. Maybe tyranny of the majority should have a negative “economic” benefit. There’s plenty of blame to go around for this situation, almost none of which is attributable to the victims of the tyranny.

  7. Kevin Rica says:

    All good points. But if there are no acceptable jobs for food stamp recipients, then why are there lots of jobs for illegal immigrants?

    “Progressives” can’t logically argue it both ways. But I guess one could always argue it illogically if one is an ideological fashionista.

    • Fred Donaldson says:

      Read about working conditions in the 19th century and you will get a better idea of the working conditions of folks who have no legal status in the U.S. and can be exploited without restraint. It’s not that Americans don’t want these jobs, as much as these jobs often pay under minimum wage, require you to live in company shacks and buy from company stores – illegal servitude in effect. These employers deserve jail.

    • Perplexed says:

      -“But if there are no acceptable jobs for food stamp recipients”

      Or maybe the definition of “acceptable” changes? Just whose definition of acceptable are we to use here? Yours? Someone who has access to a real “market” for their labor? Or someone denied access to such a market and facing malnutrition for themselves and their families?


      And whose definition do we use to say its “acceptable” to allow a majority to have access to a “market” and deny such access to a minority? Is it “acceptable” for the powerful to impose their will on the powerless? Are there any limits to this “acceptability”? Is coercion “acceptable” in a democracy? https://www.google.com/search?q=coercion&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&aq=t&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-a

      • Kevin Rica says:


        Yes, we as a country have a right to take care of our own, but don’t have the capacity to take care of all the world’s billions of poor.

        You and the Chamber of Commerce would like to let in all the world’s poor to work for low wages. That would benefit the rich.

        I don’t think it is acceptable to further impoverish America’s poor because some do not wish to recognize the clearly established laws of the United States. It is definitely not acceptable to pretend that America’s laws are not legitimate.

        And the market that we are constraining access to is the market created by the American people who have the right to limit access by free-riders.

        If you want to know just a taste of what it would be like if we really constrained illegal immigration and created labor shortages, read this:


        Yes, higher wages and better working conditions! As a Truman Democrat, I love it!

        • Perplexed says:

          And this one is known as “staw man” http://www.logicalfallacies.info/ambiguity/straw-man/

          I said nothing about low wages, and by allowing people to be prevented from accessing the market, the current system results in no wages for those people, it doesn’t get much lower than that. The Post article you provide a link to, (as is all too often the case with the Post these days) is long on anecdotal evidence and ultimately void of any meaningful information related to the current post. As all of agricultural employment in the U.S. is somewhere in the neighborhood of 2% of total employment, and much of it at such low wages that the workers still meet the income requirements for SNAP eligibility (even if the harvest season might provide a few weeks or months of adequate income).

          My point was that unemployment is the result of a choice to allow market manipulation, the same kind of manipulation that would be illegal in any other “market.” It is accomplished by economists and politicians manipulating the definition of what a “market” is. IMO, its a choice that violates the Constitutional Rights of these victims to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness to insure higher incomes for those not victimized. There are other alternatives http://www.cepr.net/index.php/blogs/beat-the-press/krugman-on-bubbles-and-secular-stagnation. But until “economic science” “comes clean” with the reality that the “labor market” is an oxymoron, we’ll never be able to even have a discussion about which (or which combination) of the many viable alternatives should be chosen. As long as the victims’ rights can be violated, it provides an easy, cheap solution and benefit for the majority, that comes completely at the expense of the victims. That’s why its called “unemployment compensation,” its just wholly inadequate compensation for the damage being done. Maybe its time to end one ruse or the other; call it a political support group for the winners instead of a science, or define the terms and stick to the definition regardless of the politics. What other “science” tolerates changing the definitions to suit the arguments being made; and creates so many victims in the process with no accountability?

          • Kevin Rica says:

            No Perplexed,

            While we do agree that the WaPo is generally bad journalism and that people who don’t have jobs get zero wage, after that you are more confused that perplexed.

            Denying that labor markets exist is off there with the sillier conspiracy theories of the flat-Earthers, birthers, and black-helicopter theorists. And the WaPo/AP article shows that they work exactly how economists say they do.

            And I have no idea what relevance the link has and you neglected to tell us. But I was happy to be reminded of that wonderful Krugman post. However, if you want to know what Krugman thinks of immigration, read this:


            and if you want us to emulate the policies of Germany, here’s a really good Krugman post on that:


            Your comment demonstrates how far off in the wilderness we have to go to deny the damage done to America’s poor by unrestricted immigration.

          • Perplexed says:

            If it was a market, it would clear and there would be no unemployment. Its only by changing the definition (or having no real definition) that “economic science” can claim this is a “market” in the same sense as any other security or commodity is traded. Economic “science” has no authority to re-write the rules of logic. Just like the flat-Earthers you make reference to, these misguided “beliefs” can last for centuries and die slowly, even in the face of substantial evidence to the contrary. An important distinction however, is that the “religion” of the flat-Earthers wasn’t used to benefit a large group at the cost of a smaller one, whereas this “religion of economists” is.

            While I have no doubt that you’re a “true believer,” I don’t recognize your “religion’s” right to re-write logic. If labor was actually traded in a market, why is it exempted from anti-trust laws? Your anti-immigration “politics” and “solutions” would address so little of the real unemployment crisis that it amounts to little more than a distraction of serious discussion of the issue.

          • Kevin Rica says:


            That is getting really bizarre and ad hominem.

            I don’t know where you got the idea that the existence of unemployment meant that there was no such thing as a labor market.

            And why do you insist on redefining words and insisting that economists use them wrong and then draw attention to what you are doing by adding a link describing the fallacy of equivocation?

            I’ve got a nice fire going and exams to write. That’s enough!

          • Perplexed says:

            Kevin Rica,

            This fallacy is known as “appeal to authority” (http://www.logicalfallacies.info/relevance/appeals/appeal-to-authority/); attack on a “pseudo science” is not an ad-hominem, as it is not an attack on a person, (http://www.logicalfallacies.info/relevance/ad-hominem/); and this started out really “bizarre:”

            “‘Progressives’ can’t logically argue it both ways. But I guess one could always argue it illogically if one is an ideological fashionista.”

            I do agree that any more time committed to this would not be time well spent and we can all only hope, for the sake of your students, that you’re not going to be testing them on logic & reasoning.