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Let’s send the poor to the moon

Perhaps Newt “Moon Unit” Gingrich wants to colonize the moon so we can lower the food stamp rolls by shipping the poor and hungry off to work in the lunar mines. Hey, man, think big! Sharon Astyk brings to mind why Gingrich’s slam on Obama as the “food stamp president” ticked me off so bad: […]

Perhaps Newt “Moon Unit” Gingrich wants to colonize the moon so we can lower the food stamp rolls by shipping the poor and hungry off to work in the lunar mines. Hey, man, think big! Sharon Astyk brings to mind why Gingrich’s slam on Obama as the “food stamp president” ticked me off so bad:

It is absolutely true that there are more food stamp recipients as a percentage of the population than ever in history – and that that was also true during the last two years of George W. Bush’s presidency. President Obama’s claim that this is due to the recession is only partly right – the reality is that as fossil energies, health care and housing costs have risen, most households have a smaller and smaller portion of their income to devote to discretionary expenses like food – and oddly, food as become functionally discretionary for many people, I’m not just being facetious, although I wish I was.

For most people with fixed costs for transportation, medications and high housing and associated costs, food is one of the few things you can cut back on – which means that the end of the month looks very different than the beginning. The incredible draw on food pantries, food stamps and soup kitchens isn’t about dependency – or at least dependency on social programs. It is about another kind of dependency, on an economic system that is slowly chewing people up and spitting them out.

It is disturbing that 1 in 7 Americans will soon probably depend on food stamps and 1 in 3 children. As I have argued before that represents a fundamental shift in our culture – we can no longer afford to eat well even on the cheapest food in the world, and the US has now functionally joned other nations that have to subsidize food for its people in order to ensure that they eat. This is a huge fundamental shift – but we also know what happens when we don’t subsidize food for the hungry poor in any nation. The kids suffer, the elderly suffer and those with the strength and the anger riot.

During the recession in the early part of the last decade, I talked to the head of a big food pantry in Dallas, who told me they had begun seeing luxury cars pulling into their parking lot — this, a sign that even the prosperous had fallen on times so hard they had to turn to a food pantry to feed themselves and their families. I really do struggle to fathom the kind of hard heart that begrudges people subsidized food. Does Gingrich think most people actually want to be on food stamps? When I was a teenager working check-out at a grocery store in my town, lots of people paid with food stamps. They were almost always obviously poor. Whatever their personal situation — I mean, for all I knew, they were taking their food-stamp savings and blowing it on Mad Dog 20/20 — there was no way in hell anybody not on food stamps would want to trade places with them.

Last fall, Sen. Jeff Sessions blasted SNAP, the federal food stamp program, for its skyrocketing budget. Excerpt:

Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions has set his sights on a federal government program that he says has quadrupled its cost during the last decade. This year the federal government is projected to spend $80 billion on food stamps. Sessions says the program’s cost has doubled in the last three years and is set to increase another 14 percent this year.

Sessions told The Daily Caller that no large government program’s cost has expanded as quickly as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamp program, which is dwarfing the budgets for other federal responsibilities.

“There is no doubt, if this country isn’t willing to look under the hood of the food stamp program as we try to bring our surging debt under control, we are obviously not serious about what we are doing,” Sessions said. “You know, for example — this is important — the federal highway program is about 40 billion [dollars] … The entire Department of Justice, including the prison system, is about about 30 [billion]. This program is 80 [billion], and it’s doubled in three years.”

Why do you suppose the budget for the federal food stamp program doubled since 2008? The country suffered its worst economic collapse since the Great Depression! We’ve got a far higher unemployment rate than we did prior to the crash. Unemployed people, unsurprisingly, don’t have money to buy things like they once did — things like, well, food.

The Pentagon estimates that it will spend $107 billion in Afghanistan this year. We’re spending more to fight a losing war in Afghanistan, a country of no importance to us, than we are to feed poor or economically stressed Americans. I’m not saying we should be satisfied with spending $80 billion a year to subsidize food stamps, but of all the things the taxpayer subsidizes, food for the poor during a prolonged economic crisis ought to be low on our budget-cutting priorities.

On the other hand, economist Casey Mulligan explains why food stamp costs have gone up so much in the past few years. It has a lot to do with eligibility requirements having been relaxed. Mulligan says that when the economy gets better, these more generous regulations will probably remain. That’s potentially a problem. But consider what it takes to qualify for the federal food stamp program:

 Household income must not exceed 130 percent of poverty; for a family of three that would be a gross monthly income of $2,008.

True, most states don’t have a program in place to test for assets, to make sure people aren’t defrauding the food stamp program. Still, is it really the case that we want to tell people making $24,000 per year that they’re too rich for food stamps? Should that be a priority? Republicans worry about creating a new dependent class, but when you read stories of real people who have had to turn to food stamps, it hardly  seems like they’re layabouts enjoying ribeyes on the taxpayer dime.

To be clear, I’m not saying that the food stamp program ought to be open-ended. I am saying that aside from the politics of resentment, I don’t understand why, given the extraordinarily difficult economic times this country has suffered these past three years, and will continue to suffer through 2014, if the Fed’s forecast is accurate — I don’t understand why the money Washington spends to subsidize supper for the poor and the working poor is such a big damn deal to Republicans.