Republicans miss major opportunity in fight over food stamps

Approving sharp cuts in food stamps is bad politics for Republicans.

Republicans in the House voted last week to cut $39 billion from the food stamp plan, technically known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program [SNAP].

The Republicans are reacting to the sharp rise in the number of people on food stamps over the last 12 years.  About 46 million people, by the most recent estimates, are enrolled in the program. That is more than double the 17 million who were in the plan in 2001.

But the areas of the country most in need of help in feeding people are GOP strongholds.

In 2010, more than half of counties with high numbers of people struggling to feed themselves were in rural counties. Rural America is one of the GOP’s strongest geographic bases.


In addition, the South, the nation’s strongest region for Republicans, currently has the largest percentage of households in the nation – 16 percent – with people having trouble getting a meal.

And since 2008 “lower-income and less educated whites also have shifted substantially toward the Republican Party.” That finding is based on a 2012 Pew Research poll. It showed the GOP gaining in party preference among white voters with family incomes less than $30,000. The Democrats’ lead among those voters shrunk from a 15 percent lead in 2008 [52-37] to a 2 percent lead in 2012 [45-43].

The recent political shift among white, low income Americans in favor of Republicans could be jeopardized if Democrats ask those voters to consider that the Republican Party does not represent their most basic interest -- getting food on the plate to feed themselves and their children.

But Republicans do not seem to think they are taking benefits away from their constituents.

While there is a higher percentage of blacks and Hispanics – strong Democrats concentrated in cities – in poverty there is no arguing that in absolute numbers most poor Americans are white --19 million. In suburbs and small rural towns, 60 percent of the poor are white.

And contrary to caricatures of food stamp recipients as a bunch of lazy people nearly half of them have jobs. In 2010, 47.8 percent of households with children that received food stamps had working adults.

Yet Republicans such as Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn.) recently voted to cut food stamps. But in his home county, 17.8 percent of residents have trouble getting enough food, according to the group, Feeding America.

The New York Times has pointed out that Rep. Fincher, a farmer elected with Tea Party support, owns a farm and has collected $3.5 million in farm subsidies from 1999 to 2012. And according to the agriculture department there is less fraud and abuse in the food stamp program than there is in farm subsidy programs.

Under the cuts approved by the House last week Americans without disabilities or children between ages 18 and 50 would be limited to three months on the program.

In addition, states would not be allowed to give foods stamps to people who qualify for other low-income aid programs, such as help paying heating bills. Separate applications would have to be filled out and Republicans estimate 1.8 million would be eliminated from the program.

Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a Kansas Republican, said the GOP plan to cut the program means “you can no longer sit on your couch…and expect the federal taxpayer to feed you.”

But Rep. Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, said it is not true that lazy people are abusing the program. “There are these myths out there that don’t reflect reality,” he said noting that the program offers an average benefit under $200 a month.

In addition, the government estimates that 25 percent of people who qualify for food stamps do not get them and a large number of retired, low-income seniors do not realized they qualify.

The heart of the political argument is that Democrats attribute the rise in people on food stamps to the recession and high unemployment over the last five years while Republicans express fear of America growing lazy, becoming an entitlement society.

GOP contenders for their party’s presidential nomination derided President Obama’s efforts to get people eligible for food stamps to make use of the program and called him a “food stamp president.”

According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2012 survey, 49 million Americans unable to put adequate food on the table and 12.4 million of them are adults -- which means they can vote.

President Obama won the 2012 presidential election with 51.1 percent of votes compared to Mitt Romney’s 47.2 percent. The four-point margin of victory is less than the percentage of voters who struggle for food.

The same study showed that food insecurity was above average in Ohio, North Carolina, California, Nevada, Texas, Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. The first four in that list have become swing states for presidential elections. The others are all Republican strongholds.

The GOP may want to reconsider its recent animosity to food stamps, because in actuality they are hurting a lot of vulnerable people who are their voters.