Last week, the House Agricultural Committee passed a five-year reauthorization of the farm bill that cuts $16 billion in food stamps while keeping several subsidies for corporate farmers intact. If the bill became law, 2 million to 3 million people would lose food assistance and 280 million children no longer would qualify for free school lunches.
The bill may not come to a full House vote because tea-party types want even more cuts. Even then, it has little chance of becoming law since it differs radically from the farm bill passed by the Senate last month, which itself cut $4.5 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, thanks in part to 22 Democratic senators who seem to have absorbed the myth that there is abuse in the program, despite evidence showing strikingly little.
Last week's debate showed a Congress stunningly out of touch, not only with the reality being lived by a vast number of Americans but also with basic economics. Cutting food stamps not only would take food out of the mouths of babes, it would remove billions of dollars from local and state economies.
In what looks like a campaign to demonize the program, unceasing repetition — accompanied by an outlier anecdote or two about a few scammers — has strengthened the distortions. So here are a few facts:
The average household receiving food stamps had an average monthly income of $731, and that includes other government assistance like disability, Social Security and welfare cash assistance. According to CBO, three-quarters of households getting food stamps included a child, a person over 60 or a disabled person.
The food-stamp program is indeed bigger and more expensive than it has ever been: Last year, 45 million Americans got food stamps each month, costing the government $78 billion annually. But far from being "out of control," as the mythmakers would have it, the program has grown largely because there simply are more poor people because of the economic downturn in 2008.
About 20 percent of the increase came as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the financial stimulus, which makes sense: $1 worth of government spending generates $1.72 in economic activity. In Philadelphia, $61 million in food stamps per month spent by recipients adds $106 million to the local economy.
If allowed to continue, the food-stamp program would reduce on its own, according to CBO, falling significantly as the economy recovers. In five years, it would be back to 1997 levels. Interrupting that recovery, while at the same time increasing hunger and malnutrition, takes a special brand of myopia. Or malice.