Commentary Law and Policy

Attack on Food Stamps Is Bad for the Poor and the Economy

Sheila Bapat

While Thursday's Republican-led bill to slash food stamps is highly unlikely to pass the Senate, it shows the influence of the Tea Party as the ideological foundation for House Republican leadership—an ideology blind to the role food stamps play in the economy.

About 47 million U.S. residents—primarily women, children, and people of color—currently rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps. According to the latest census data, about 47 million U.S. individuals are also living in poverty—nearly the highest poverty level the country has seen in two decades. And the Federal Reserve concluded recently that the labor market is not strong enough to ease back stimulus dollars being injected into the economy, in part because unemployment is still too high.

As if they are living in Bizarro World, last week the Republican-led House of Representatives showed the U.S. population that none of this information guides their priorities. After a deeply partisan vote led by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), House Republicans succeeded Thursday in passing a bill that will cut SNAP by $39 billion over the next ten years. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the House bill would cut three million people from the program per year. The bill also includes stricter work requirements, mandating adults between the ages of 18 and 50 without children to somehow find work despite sluggish job growth, or to enroll in a work-training program to qualify for benefits. (The House passed this bill even though federal SNAP funding is slated to decrease for the poor already; the 2008 stimulus bill increased food stamp benefits, but this increase, which was intended to be temporary, ends on November 1.)

While the House’s bill is highly unlikely to pass the Senate—Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) called the bill a “monumental waste of time”—House Republicans’ tenacity in attacking food stamps may at least force Democrats to agree to deeper cuts than they previously agreed to. Above all else, this vote shows the influence of the Tea Party as the ideological foundation for House Republican leadership—an ideology blind to the role food stamps play in the economy. Beyond meeting the basic objective of keeping people from going hungry, food stamps ensure the poor have spending power that helps to support food businesses.

The relevance of food stamps to the U.S. economy cannot be overstated. Food stamps have been found to stimulate the economy up to $1.70 for every SNAP dollar spent. In 2011, for example, the $78 billion spent on food stamps resulted in $115 billion in economic activity overall. This impact of SNAP is not limited to major grocery chains or big box stores like Wal-Mart. Hunger Action Los Angeles’ Market Match program matches up to $5 a day of what SNAP recipients spend at local farmers’ markets, incentivizing recipients to spend their SNAP benefits on fresh fruit and vegetables grown by local vendors. A dozen or so such programs exist across the country.

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According to Frank Tamborello, executive director of Hunger Action Los Angeles, the program builds clientele for local markets while also helping SNAP recipients afford healthier foods. “As a result of our program, we’ve seen a 31 percent increase in the number of food stamp recipients spending their stamps at local farmers’ markets,” Tamborello told Rewire Friday. “The program shows that recipients want to feed their children healthy food.”

Tamborello says a cut like the one the House is proposing would kick many food stamp recipients off of SNAP rolls and prevent people from spending any money at local farmers’ markets.

“As it is, the people we serve are struggling to stretch food stamps as far as they can go,” he said. “Often they just don’t have a lot of money left over in the family budget for food. Whatever job recovery we’ve seen hasn’t really reached this sector of the economy.”

Some of the largest employers of the working poor in the United States, including Wal-Mart, have many employees relying on public benefits like food stamps and have even encouraged their workers to apply for SNAP. To qualify for food stamps, a three-person family’s gross monthly income must generally be at or below 130 percent of the poverty line, or $2,069 (about $24,800 a year).

Juana Lopez, a food stamp recipient, lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two teenage children. She has rheumatoid arthritis and is unable to work. Her husband cleans carpets and washes cars to support the family, but they are struggling.

Lopez uses her food stamps to participate in the Market Match program.

“We wouldn’t have enough money for fresh vegetables without Market Match,” Lopez told Rewire. “We try to avoid cheap food that isn’t good for my kids.”

Tamborello says that despite tough job prospects for many of the people his group serves, SNAP benefits help many poor people avoid hunger and, through programs like Market Match, improve families’ overall health and wellness.

“The misconception is that low-income people don’t know what healthy eating is. They do. We see at the farmers’ market how every dollar is important to them to spend on healthy food,” Tamborello said.

But House Republicans do not view women like Lopez and their families in this light, nor do they regard recipients of public benefits as relevant to the economy at all. Instead, Republican lawmakers prove over and over again that they are committed, above all else, to a myopic, misguided ideology.

CORRECTION: A version of this article incorrectly noted that Hunger Action Los Angeles’ Market Match program provides an unlimited match to whatever SNAP recipients spend at their local farmers’ markets. We have updated this article to reflect that the program benefit is limited to $5 a day.

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