When I was a little boy, my family was on food stamps. My father, however, would tell you this is a lie. He would say that our family was never on any welfare program—most especially food stamps. And technically, he’d be right. The government never gave us food stamps that we could exchange for food at markets. Yet we were on food stamps. In fact, I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that we were far more dependent on food stamps than any family that has ever used the program to supplement their budget for food.
All the time that I was in grammar school, my parents owned a 7-11 store. And it was located in a fairly poor area. It wasn’t that poor, because we lived there too. But there was a lot of low-income housing and so there were a lot of people in the area who received food stamps. And they spent some of those food stamps at our store. I would estimate that at least 5% of our total revenue came in the form of food stamps.
This is a critical aspect of the economics of such programs for the poor. There is a reason that the modern food stamp program—Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP)—is bundled with the Farm Bill: allowing people to buy more food is good for the people who grow the food, who distribute the food, who sell the food. What’s more, most of the Farm Bill is not direct cash payments to farmers; most of it involves things like price floors that make food more expensive than it would be in a free market. The idea always was that if the government was going to make food prices artificially high, it should offset the effect on the poor by providing subsidies (i.e. food stamps).
The House Republicans who decided to gut SNAP, of course, do not understand this. It reminds me of another recent conservative “scandal.” I’m sure you remember Mitt Romney’s famous words about the 47% of people who do not pay any federal income taxes. On Fox News, this was presented as, “Shouldn’t everyone do at least a little to support the government?!” But they never talked about the reason that the poor weren’t paying any federal income taxes: Republican tax policy. Because of their constant efforts to lower the taxes of the rich, they couldn’t help but also lower the taxes of the poor—many to the point where they paid none at all. I wrote about this in some depth almost exactly a year ago, Republicans Abuse Poor Coming & Going. So they use the poor to justify lowering taxes on the rich and once that’s done, they scapegoat the poor for not paying taxes.
In the same way, the Republicans conveniently forget about part of the justification for food stamps. So now they want to eliminate them while keeping the higher prices institutionalized. Once again: a government program that gives money to the rich is made less poisonous by giving a small fraction of that money to the poor. Once the program for the rich is institutionalized, they want to kill the program for the poor. It could be that the Republicans just don’t know the history of these programs. But I suspect it is more that they simply want to hurt the poor and help the rich.
Helping the poor necessarily helps the middle class and rich. The poor have to spend any money we give to them so it really does work its way through the economy. When I was a kid, I saw very clearly that the food stamp program helped my middle class family. And the legislators who originally started the food stamp program understood how it helped the (now) mostly rich farmers. But it doesn’t work the other way. Giving money to the rich is an extremely poor way of distributing money throughout the economy. Given how inefficient it is, you really have to hate the poorer classes to favor farm subsidies over food stamps.