Political Animal


March 28, 2013 2:59 PM SNAP Demagoguery

By Ed Kilgore

As you probably know, complaints about the size and cost of the food stamp program (now known as SNAP, for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) has become an ever-more-prominent part of the conservative argument that America is awash in redistributive “welfare” spending (they can’t much make that case about cash assistance any more). It was no accident that during his 2012 presidential campaign, Newt Gingrich called Barack Obama the “food stamp president.” That’s now a quasi-racial appeal along the lines of the old “welfare queen” smear.

Just today, the Wall Street Journal had a report on rising SNAP costs, with the provocative title, “Use of Food Stamps Swells Even as Economy Improves,” with the planted axiom being that there should be an inverse relationship between food stamps and the unemployment rate.

But as Jordan Weissmann points out at The Atlantic, that’s a false premise:

[R]epeat after me: There are record numbers of Americans on food stamps today because there are record numbers of Americans in poverty (records begin in 1959.)
As of 2011, there were 46.2 million men, women, and children living below the U.S. poverty line. There isn’t much reason to believe that the last year of mediocre job growth has dented that number. And until it plunges, the food stamp rolls are going to stay full — plain and simple.

One might add that it’s more than a bit hypocritical for Republicans to deride reductions in the unemployment rate as meaningless while simultaneously complaining that counter-cyclical assistance programs should be shedding beneficiaries. But it’s all kinda beside th point:

Of all the social welfare programs the U.S. has, we should probably be worrying about food stamps the least. Its beneficiaries are overwhelmingly needy. In 2010, about 87 percent were at or below the poverty line and almost half were children. Only 3.5 percent had incomes higher than 130 percent of the poverty line. Meanwhile, the program arguably encourages more work by letting unemployed parents take the first job they can find, even if it won’t pay enough to feed their family on its own. It’s also hyper-efficient stimulus. The money has to be spent instead of saved, meaning it cycles quickly back into the economy.
Our food stamp rolls are eye popping, but they’re not the problem. Poverty is.

This won’t be much of an answer to those conservatives who claim that helping poor people is why they are poor in the first place. But that’s another issue.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Peter C on March 28, 2013 3:09 PM:

    We spend almost as much money on the military as the rest of the world COMBINED. We also give food stamps to the desperately poor. One of these is a problem.

    If you see the latter as the problem, your probably a Republican.

  • Peter C on March 28, 2013 3:12 PM:



  • majun on March 28, 2013 3:23 PM:

    If Walmart would start paying a living wage, that would put a dent in the SNAP rolls. There are a lot of working poor who qualify for benefits.

    Of course there is the anomaly of Walmart increasing the number of stores even as they are decreasing the number employees. I suppose that there is nothing they can do to get the employees they let go off of public assistance, but for those that they keep on, they will soon be too tired to go and apply for assistance, so that should bring the number down somewhat.

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on March 28, 2013 3:40 PM:

    "... “Use of Food Stamps Swells Even as Economy Improves,” with the planted axiom being that there should be an inverse relationship between food stamps and the unemployment rate."

    If you let the GOP tell it, all these new hires are now being employed in secure, salaried positions with generous health and childcare benefits, housing allowances, and even relocation assistance. Yeah... Riiiiight...

    Even if the unemployment rate is declining, the jobs that are being created ain't exactly middle-class income-generating jobs.

    And, seriously, do you know how little income you have to earn to qualify for SNAP???? SNAP beneficiaries are certainly not living high off any hog much less a piglet!!! Most of these people would certainly have to be unemployed, underemployed, or employed at minimum-wage levels to qualify for assistance. And even if they are employed with a stable wage, that standard of living could easily go up in smokes if they are several dependents in the picture.

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on March 28, 2013 3:42 PM:

    *if there are* several dependents in the picture

  • howard on March 28, 2013 7:26 PM:

    a right-winger of my acquaintance recently tried to assure me that snap was a "generous" program.

    it is amazing what stories these people tell themselves.

  • Rick B on March 29, 2013 2:20 AM:

    Why is SNAP operated out of the Department of Agriculture, not out of the Department of Health and Human Services?

    It's not a 'people' support program, that's why. It's a farm and food distribution support program. There are many inner city neighborhoods which have a supermarket only because SNAP allows the people who live there to buy food from them. Convenience stores in those same neighborhoods also remain profitable and in business because of SNAP.

    SNAP is the proof that an absence of consumption is the source of poor economic performance, not the absence of money given to investors to somehow create jobs. Jobs WILL be created where there is consumption to establish and maintain a market. They will not exist just because some wealthy fat-cat seeker of economic rent (not a value-producing function) is given more money to throw away on his Mercedes, mansion, or his yacht.

    Conservatives/Republicans (the same thing) exist today only to gain power. Their self-serving wants (it's impossible to dignify them with the term philosophy) are nothing more than propaganda lies which are focus group tested to increase votes for the idiots they install in the legislatures.

    The minute they regain power as under G. W. Bush they will ignore everything they have promised they would deliver. Instead they will sell the government off to wealth investors just like Rick Perry has been selling Texas off to whoever he could.

  • jkl; on March 29, 2013 7:10 PM:

    Money saved??
    It buys diapers and medicine, gas for borrowed cars for medical appointments or fruitless job interviews. Families with meager foodstamp debit cards are very poor, thinner every time you seem them, and suffering.