Hunger is high. Overpayments are low. The economy is weak, and food stamps are a strong stimulus. What exactly is the problem the GOP is trying to solve?
Here is a fact that should disturb everyone, regardless of their politics: Today, about one out of every seven Americans receives food stamps. That's a population of 45 million people -- roughly the size of Spain -- who rely on government help to feed themselves.
There are two ways to interpret this number. On the one hand, you could take it as evidence of just how crucial the social safety net has become in the wake of the Great Recession, as families are quite literally struggling to put food on the table. On the other, you could just read it as an example of government welfare run amok.
Guess which view is popular among conservatives these days.
This past week, Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama proposed a handful of amendments to the farm bill that would tighten food stamp eligibility and end payments to states that increase the size of their rolls. They were relatively modest, reaping up to $20 billion in savings from a program expected to cost $770 billion over the next ten years, and were rejected by Senate Democrats as well as a handful of GOP moderates. But the cuts were part of a growing Republican animosity to the food stamp program. Libertarian hero Rand Paul had previously proposed cutting it by more than 40 percent. The Republican-led House, where Oversight Committee chair Darryl Issa has been rampaging about alleged fraud in the program, has passed a bill that would nix $34 billion from its budget.
Then there's the commentariat. The Wall Street Journal editorial page has declared that food stamps are becoming "the next middle-class entitlement." Fox Business says the same.
There is no question that the food stamp program is expensive and growing. Enrollment in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), as it's officially called, increased 70 percent between 2007 and 2011. Annual spending more than doubled to an all-time-high of $78 billion. It's now the second largest welfare program behind Medicaid, which cost the federal government about $275 billion last year.
But here are a few facts to keep in mind. According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, the food stamp program's growth "has been driven primarily by the weak economy." About 65 percent of the increased spending was the result of people simply getting poorer. Another 20 percent was due to the stimulus act, which boosted the maximum benefit at a time when the recession was absolutely grinding up vulnerable families. As the CBO notes, there have been no -- I repeat no -- significant legislative changes to who is eligible since Obama took office.
Meanwhile, the average household receiving food stamps has an income of $731 dollars, including other welfare payments. Around 85 percent of recipients are below the poverty line, which amounts to a measly $18,500 a year for a family of three. The vast majority are elderly, disabled, or have children. Among single, young, and healthy recipients, the average income is $268 a month.
We're also not even handing out benefits to everyone we could be. By 2009, only 72 percent of those eligible were enrolled. Despite an investigation by Scripps Howard that uncovered some scattered instances of fraud, the U.S. Department of Agriculture believes abuse of the program is at an all-time low. Ninety-eight percent of food stamp payments went to houses which should have been eligible, and overpayment rates are miniscule.
FOOD AS STIMULUS
The Republicans have argued that there are hidden ways people could be cheating the system. People enrolled in other welfare programs can automatically receive food stamps, no matter what their savings are. Technically, you could own a $1 million house and be on the government's dole.
These are the sorts of specters people raise if they are philosophically opposed to government safety net programs, no matter how well run they might be. States enroll families automatically because it cuts down on administrative costs, which has helped make the food stamp program extremely efficient. Just because some people theoretically could be scamming the system doesn't mean they are in any meaningful numbers. And paranoia isn't a reason to start pulling food out of people's mouths.
If I wanted to impugn the GOP's motives, I might say that they were trying to snuff out an incredibly successful stimulus program. Because food stamps go to families literally living hand to mouth, they're quickly cycled back into the economy. Moody's Analytics has suggested that every dollar spent on the program generates $1.72 in economic activity.
But I don't think that's necessary. The GOP has always been opposed to lower-class welfare in principle (middle-class welfare, well that's a different story). It's a pity though, because right now, food stamps are obviously needed more than ever.
As Senator Sessions said as he argued for cuts, "This is more than just a financial issue. It is a moral issue as well." Exactly. At least we can all agree on that.
Defining common cultural literacy for an increasingly diverse nation.
Is the culture war over?
That seems an absurd question. This is an age when Confederate monuments still stand; when white-privilege denialism is surging on social media; when legislators and educators in Arizona and Texas propose banning ethnic studies in public schools and assign textbooks euphemizing the slave trade; when fear of Hispanic and Asian immigrants remains strong enough to prevent immigration reform in Congress; when the simple assertion that #BlackLivesMatter cannot be accepted by all but is instead contested petulantly by many non-blacks as divisive, even discriminatory.
And that’s looking only at race. Add gender, guns, gays, and God to the mix and the culture war seems to be raging along quite nicely.
Be kind, show understanding, do good—but, some scientists say, don’t try to feel others’ pain.
In 2006, then-senator Barack Obama gave a commencement speech offering what seemed like very sensible advice. “There’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit,” he told Northwestern’s graduating class. “But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit—the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us—the child who’s hungry, the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room.”
In the years since then, the country has followed Obama’s counsel, at least when it comes to talking about empathy. It’s become a buzzword, extolled by Arianna Huffington, taught to doctors and cops, and used as a test for politicians. "We are on the cusp of an epic shift,” according to Jeremy Rifkin’s 2010 book The Empathetic Civilization. “The Age of Reason is being eclipsed by the Age of Empathy."
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Former Senator Jim Webb is the fifth Democrat to enter the race—and by far the most conservative one.
In a different era’s Democratic Party, Jim Webb might be a serious contender for the presidential nomination. He’s a war hero and former Navy secretary, but he has been an outspoken opponent of recent military interventions. He’s a former senator from Virginia, a purple state. He has a strong populist streak, could appeal to working-class white voters, and might even have crossover appeal from his days as a member of the Reagan administration.
In today’s leftward drifting Democratic Party, however, it’s hard to see Webb—who declared his candidacy Thursday—getting very far. As surprising as Bernie Sanders’s rise in the polls has been, he looks more like the Democratic base than Webb does. The Virginian is progressive on a few major issues, including the military and campaign spending, but he’s far to the center or even right on others: He's against affirmative action, supports gun rights, and is a defender of coal. During the George W. Bush administration, Democrats loved to have him as a foil to the White House. It’s hard to imagine the national electorate will cotton to him in the same way. Webb’s statement essentially saying he had no problem with the Confederate battle flag flying in places like the grounds of the South Carolina capitol may have been the final straw. (At 69, he’s also older than Hillary Clinton, whose age has been a topic of debate, though still younger than Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden.)
The retired general and former CIA director holds forth on the Middle East.
ASPEN, Colo.—Retired U.S. Army General David Petraeus pioneered America’s approach to counterinsurgency, led the surge in Iraq, served as director of the CIA for a year, and was sentenced to two years probation for leaking classified information to his mistress. On Wednesday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, he was interviewed by my colleague, Jeffrey Goldberg, about subjects including efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear program; the civil war in Syria; ISIS and the threat it poses to the United States; and the Iraq War.
Here are several noteworthy moments from their conversation, slightly condensed:
The Risks of Attacking Iran
Jeffrey Goldberg: So you believe that, under certain circumstances, President Obama would still use military force against Iran?
David Petraeus: I think he would, actually. I know we’ve had red lines that didn’t turn out to be red lines. ... I think this is a different issue, and I clearly recognize how the administration has sought to show that this is very, very different from other sort of off-the-cuff remarks.
Goldberg: How did the Obama administration stop Israel from attacking Iran? And do you think that if this deal does go south, that Israel would be back in the picture?
Petraeus: I don’t, actually. I think Israel is very cognizant of its limitations. ... The Israelis do not have anything that can crack this deeply buried enrichment site ... and if you cannot do that, you’re not going to set the program back very much. So is it truly worth it, then?
So that’s a huge limitation. It’s also publicly known that we have a 30,000-pound projectile that no one else has, that no one else can even carry. The Massive Ordinance Penetrator was under design for almost six years. ... If necessary, we can take out all these facilities and set them back a few years, depending on your assumptions.
But that’s another roll of the iron dice, as Bismarck used to say, and you never know when those dice are rolled what the outcome is going to be. You don’t know what risks could materialize for those who are in harm’s way.
You don’t know what the response could be by Iran.
There’s always the chance that there will be salvos at Israel, but what if they decide to go at the Gulf states, where we have facilities in every single one.
This is not something to be taken lightly, clearly.
For centuries, experts have predicted that machines would make workers obsolete. That moment may finally be arriving. Could that be a good thing?
1. Youngstown, U.S.A.
The end of work is still just a futuristic concept for most of the United States, but it is something like a moment in history for Youngstown, Ohio, one its residents can cite with precision: September 19, 1977.
For much of the 20th century, Youngstown’s steel mills delivered such great prosperity that the city was a model of the American dream, boasting a median income and a homeownership rate that were among the nation’s highest. But as manufacturing shifted abroad after World War II, Youngstown steel suffered, and on that gray September afternoon in 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced the shuttering of its Campbell Works mill. Within five years, the city lost 50,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in manufacturing wages. The effect was so severe that a term was coined to describe the fallout: regional depression.
A European heat wave, lightning over California, a building made of 8,500 beer bottles, shrimp fishing on horseback in Belgium, the first-ever White House Campout, mine detection rats in Cambodia, and much more.
A European heat wave, lightning over California, a building made of 8,500 beer bottles, cosplay in Paris, shrimp fishing on horseback in Belgium, the first-ever White House Campout, mine detection rats in Cambodia, a train wreck in Pakistan, an airshow over St. Petersburg, Russia, and much more.
People labeled “smart” at a young age don’t deal well with being wrong. Life grows stagnant.
At whatever agesmart people develop the idea that they are smart, they also tend to develop vulnerability around relinquishing that label. So the difference between telling a kid “You did a great job” and “You are smart” isn’t subtle. That is, at least, according to one growing movement in education and parenting that advocates for retirement of “the S word.”
The idea is that when we praise kids for being smart, those kids think: Oh good, I'm smart. And then later, when those kids mess up, which they will, they think: Oh no, I'm not smart after all. People will think I’m not smart after all. And that’s the worst. That’s a risk to avoid, they learn.“Smart” kids stand to become especially averse to making mistakes, which are critical to learning and succeeding.
The sport should worry that it has only one popular contest and one real star—who’s reached his peak.
On Saturday, Joey “Jaws” Chestnut will attempt to defend his title in the Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest. He’ll probably win, and if he does it’ll be his ninth straight victory—a feat of longevity rarely seen in any athletic competition. Despite being pushed hard by last year’s runner-up in the annual contest, Chestnut’s total of 61 hot dogs consumed was still notably better than the second-place contestant’s 56. By all accounts, Chestnut is the best in the world at what he does.
But his success in the contest masks a problem—he’s been so dominant for so long in Major League Eating’s flagship event that the sport has failed to give rise to a successor. MLE is synonymous with the Nathan’s contest, and the Nathan’s contest is Chestnut’s turf. Ironically, the sport that rewards competitors for focusing on a single food in any given contest may well be undone by its own myopic focus on Chestnut on the Fourth of July.