Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Prosperity for the rich, ridicule for the poor

If you didn't read the recent op-ed in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, America's food stamp mentality, I'll save you the bother. If you're anything like me - and thankfully, most people are more like me than like the author Jennifer Stefano, the Pennsylvania director of America for Prosperity - it would just make your blood boil. I found it completely offensive - both its intent and its purposeful misstatement of facts.

Ms. Stefano's entire argument in this op-ed rests on "data" that have no basis in reality. She claimed there are 101 million Americans who receive some kind of subsidized food assistance, a number that "has surpassed the number of full-time private sector workers in our country." Actually, there are 114 million private sector workers in the United States, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics' data for June 2013, But where is she getting the first part of her claim?

The number in her deeply flawed assumption comes from merely adding up the total participation in every USDA food program and concluding that the 32 million children who get school lunch are completely different from the 10.6 million children who get school breakfast. She then concluded that none of those individuals are among the 46 million Americans on food stamps. This is completely absurd on its face.

I appreciate that the Trib editors, in the online version of this op-ed, already removed her most obviously dishonest assertions from the printed version. Read in their original state, these wild distortions of the truth gave the reader a fuller picture of the depths of Ms. Stefano's disdain for people struggling to make ends meet. These included the claim that unlike when FDR started the food stamp program, now "it's a debit card, administered by big Wall Street firms making major dollars off the program. With food stamps you can buy magazines, sodas, cigarettes and condoms, or you can sell them for cash, 55 cents on the dollar." There isn't a word in that statement that's true. It's good the Trib recognized that.

But I suspect Ms. Stefano knows the facts are not on her side, which is why she's trying so desperately and cynically to mislead. She pits neighbor against neighbor to the benefit of her and her cohorts. The Americans for Prosperity has an agenda, and it has nothing to do with helping the average American, her folksy "kitchen table" talk aside. The prosperity they're interested in protecting is that of their right-wing funders: the Koch brothers and their ilk – the top 1%.

It's a reprehensible agenda, and the title of her op-ed shows her hand. What, pray tell, is a food stamp mentality? When I was on food stamps I was in college, trying to better myself so I could fully support my infant son. I was struggling and I was scared but I was determined, and grateful for a safety net. And it paid off: I got my degree and I haven't been on food stamps since.

But apparently AfP would argue that my fellow citizens should have turned their backs and let us both go hungry, with the misery, poor health, and poor outcomes that would have inevitably entailed.

Or they would argue I should have been mandated to take whatever minimum-wage job I could have gotten with only a high school diploma – jobs that don't cover the costs of living, much less the cost of daycare. Many in Congress, supported by groups like the Koch brothers and AfP, make exactly that argument when they try to advance work requirements for people on food stamps. As if half of all food stamp recipients aren't children, which they are. As if most able-bodied adult food stamp recipients aren't already working, which they are.

As if it's better - in a country where the Koch brothers' agenda is shifting more and more of the nation's wealth to the richest 1% – to condemn struggling families to a lifetime of poverty. Better that then to help lift them up to a place where they don't need help anymore? No, the truly impoverished mentality is that of Ms. Stefano and her heartless billionaire patrons.

--Maria Muzzie, Community Organizer

Friday, July 19, 2013


I'm going to ask you to do something a little weird. Ready? Ok, close your eyes and try to picture someone on food stamps. What does he or she look like? Where does he or she live? What does he or she do all day? Think about this image for a minute until you have a complete picture, and then open your eyes.

Now let's see how your mental image compares with reality.

Was the person an adult? Because almost half of food stamp recipients are children.

Was it a white person? Most Pennsylvanians on food stamps are white.

Were they in an urban setting, probably in some Northeasetern city like Philly or NYC? Were they spending the day sitting around unemployed, on welfare?

The reality? Only 8% of food stamp recipients receive cash welfare benefits. The overwhelming majority of SNAP recipients who can work, do so. And it's Mississippi that's number one in food stamp enrollment. (Check out food stamp enrollment by state here.)

If the picture on your head was on target – we're glad to hear it. But believe us when we tell you that there are many myths and misconceptions about people on food stamps. You've probably heard some of them: they're on drugs, they're self-indulgent, they're gaming the system – all just bad people living the good life on the public dime.

For these "good life" allegations to sound credible you have to believe all the baloney about what they’re using food stamps to buy – lobster, steak, and trips to the casino. For the "bad people" allegations to sound credible, you have to believe all the baloney about what they're using food stamps to buy – junk food, sweets, alcohol, and cigarettes.

So which is it? They’re living high on the hog with that whopping $4/day, or they’re scarfing down junk food? If you missed it, read this brilliant piece on cash register resentment, and the food people actually buy with their food stamps.

But without the facts it's so much easier to judge, than to feel empathy, isn't it? Which is why the Republican lawmakers that have been arguing the most for cuts to the food stamp program like to trade on these myths and misconceptions, because it helps mask the reality – the thousands of families who will go hungry as a result of their policy decisions.

Lest someone think we have a partisan view of this, there are enemies of hungry people on both sides of the aisle. What's the deal? Are they just mean-spirited? Do they think keeping poor people hungry will teach them a lesson?

The legislators leading the charge against growing food stamp funding claim the program is rife with fraud and abuse, but we know that's not true. The House Republican leadership's decision to split the farm bill in two – an agricultural bill and a nutrition/food stamps bill – was done in the name of "austerity" and reform. If by reform, they meant the rich get richer on taxpayer dollars, well the U.S. seems to be getting pretty expert in that kind of reform.

While leaving food stamps behind, the recent House farms-only farm bill made sure 75 percent of the farm supports go to the biggest 10 percent of farmers. It did so by creating "new special interest carve-outs and unnecessary subsidies that will actually expand the footprint of Washington in agriculture." What's so galling is that they did this despite the fact that "large businesses that benefit from federal agriculture programs are already enjoying record profits," and despite the fact that there is serious fraud and abuse in farm subsidies.

Will they be so generous to food stamp recipients? If only. The $20.5 billion in food stamp cuts the House voted on last time will likely just be a jumping off point. After all, splitting the farm bill in two means they don’t have to limit food stamp cuts in order to win Democratic votes for their farm subsidies – those already passed with the Dems in the minority. And we know there’ll be some cuts, because the Senate has said $4.5 billion in food stamp cuts is fine, and President Obama barely batted an eye at that.

So to sum up where we are with the farm bill and food stamp funding: as Stephen Colbert so aptly put it, "Farm programs cannot wait. We need to grow the food that people can no longer afford to buy."

Whether the final farm bill includes massive gifts to agribusiness at the expense of taxpayers and poor people will be up to us. It’s time to raise our voices and remind our legislators of the cost of hunger and of the price they will pay at the polls next election if they won’t work to help hungry children.

Join us and be a part of this movement.