Verbal Attacks on SNAP Program Won't Reduce Need

Jan 24, 2012

By Jenice R. Robinson and Elizabeth Lower-Basch

Last week, Republican presidential candidate New Gingrich drew jeers and cheers for his statements about food stamps. 

Much ink has been devoted to what Gingrich meant. Regardless of his intention, Gingrich's statements about food stamps--drawing a false dichotomy between benefit recipients and workers--and media coverage of them are unfortunate and glaring examples of what is wrong with the tenor of public discourse around issues related to poverty and opportunity.

It's far easier to stigmatize and label poor and low-income people as "them" or "other" (or use loaded language linking poverty and public benefit programs to race) than it is to talk about real solutions to address widening economic inequality and poverty, which, in spite of racial and ethnic disparities, is increasing for all groups.  Polarizing language does nothing to advance real policy debate or adequately address issues that affect millions of low-income workers and their families.

Food stamps, now formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), currently allow about one in seven people in the United States to put food on the table and meet their nutritional needs. The number of people receiving SNAP has grown due to a combination of factors. First, with poverty up, unemployment still high and millions involuntarily working part-time because they can't find anything else, need simply is greater than in the recent past. Two, policymakers rightly increased program benefits slightly in recent years and removed some of the red tape for applicants so the program  could better respond to increased need. 

No one, regardless of political party, is pleased that so many people of all races in our country are still struggling to feed their families two and a half years into the supposed economic recovery.  Instead of debating the politics of benefit programs, we should discuss how to create a society in which there is ample economic opportunity for all and as few people as possible need SNAP to feed themselves and their families. Certainly we must have public debate about how we get the economy back on track and implement policies that promote job creation. At the same time, we cannot forget that there is a role for a strong safety net. From a moral perspective, policymakers should make certain that in this nation of plenty, everyone who needs nutrition assistance gets it.

A recent poll demonstrates public opinion is in line with these ideals. Hart Research Associates conducted a poll of registered voters for the Food Research Action Council earlier this month and found that the overwhelming majority of the population (77 percent) support the SNAP program and oppose cutting it as a way to reduce government spending. Although the level of support varied, overwhelming opposition to cuts remained true across party lines. These results demonstrate that in spite of presidential campaign rhetoric to the contrary, the public understands SNAP is a safety net program that has appropriately and adequately responded to need.

In a press statement, FRAC noted it commissioned the poll to measure program support because "some state policymakers, some conservatives in Congress, and some political leaders have launched attacks on the program."

The nation is increasingly becoming a land of have-nots. Economic inequality has risen significantly over the last 30 years and most of the income growth is concentrated at the top. At this moment in time when one in three of us are poor or low-income and when good jobs that pay family-sustaining wages are difficult to find, policymakers should not be launching attacks on programs that help millions of families meet their basic needs. Instead, they should focus on how we reverse increasing poverty, restore health to the economy and the jobs market, and ensure there is less need for safety net programs. 

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