Back in the 1990s when George W. Bush was governor, he made “faith-based initiatives” and “compassionate conservatism” his buzzwords for welfare reform. The buzzwords sounded good, but what they really meant was that Texas, which has been traditionally stingy with food stamps and child welfare payments over the years, got even stingier. More children would go hungry, but Bush said the government didn’t have a monopoly on compassion — churches and charities surely could fill the void. Many residents applauded his efforts to place time limits on welfare assistance and to enforce work-training initiatives.
Bush carried that line of thinking to the White House after becoming president in 2001, and the trend toward cutting social services has continued over the years, even as the economy struggles, decent paying jobs are hard to find, and the separation between the rich and poor grows ever wider.
So it was hardly a surprise that the federal government this month slashed the budget for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — that is, food stamps. The program provides various levels of assistance depending on family size and other criteria, including disability and age. You pretty much have to have a Ph.D. to work through the qualifications for the program, which excludes some types of income and assets. But the bottom line is this: As of last Friday, most families saw a cut of 7 percent in their SNAP funds. A family of four will, on average, receive $36 less each month, according to the Tarrant Area Food Bank.
SNAP, like many other programs that help the working poor, is a victim of a U.S. House of Representatives controlled by Ayn Rand-quoting folk who figure that if you’re poor, it’s your fault. When asked last year about the cuts, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan said that the SNAP program “cannot continue to grow at its current rates.” He seems not to understand that the need for programs like SNAP is directly tied to the economy. If people are working and making more money, they don’t qualify for SNAP. When jobs are cut and the economy tightens, SNAP is more crucial than ever, as part of the nation’s fragile safety net for working families.
The income guidelines for programs like SNAP are only slightly more generous than federal poverty definitions. Right now, a family of four with an annual income of less than about $31,000 is considered poor. That translates to about $589 per week. As of last month, a two-bedroom apartment in Fort Worth rents, on average, for about $1,200 monthly. With at least $1,200 to pay in rent, that family is working for two or even three weeks of each month just to pay for housing. SNAP helps stretch what’s left to cover the food portion of family bills.
What Congress has done is essentially to pass the problem of “not enough food at the end of the month” to the private sector yet again. The Tarrant Area Food Bank and other local food pantries will do what they can, as they always do.
What isn’t being said is that food stamps don’t hurt the economy. Kroger and Tom Thumb still get $1.16 for each can of beans sold, whether the buyer pays cash or uses SNAP. Unlike with other means-based programs, you can work and still qualify for SNAP, so it’s not a program that discourages people from working in order to maintain benefits. The worst potential consequence in the SNAP wars: According to the food bank, 57 percent of SNAP beneficiaries in Fort Worth are children.