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.
Two recent events—the spectacle of Garry Trudeau, the Doonesbury creator, attacking a group of murdered cartoonists for offending his sensibilities, and the protest organized by a group of bien-pensant writers against the PEN American Center for planning to honor those cartoonists tonight in New York—has brought the Charlie Hebdo controversy back to public consciousness. So has the failed attack Sunday in Texas on a group of anti-Islam militants staging a Prophet Muhammad cartoon contest, though, unlike Charlie Hebdo, the organization that sponsored the Texas event is run by an actual anti-Muslim extremist who, I'm proud to say, is a personal nemesis of mine.
Much has already been written about both the Trudeau and PEN controversies. I particularly recommend David Frum on Trudeau, and Katha Pollitt and Matt Welch on PEN, as well as this fine op-ed by Andrew Solomon and Suzanne Nossel, the president and executive director, respectively, of the PEN American Center. These represent only a handful of the many dozens of writers who have risen in defense of free speech, and of Charlie Hebdo’s right to lampoon religion.
The Onion had a problem: It fell behind the times. The mock newspaper hadn’t printed an issue on actual paper since 2013, and in the period since, it never redesigned its website. As the media world changed—as the New York Times and the Washington Post adapted the ways they published stories online—The Onion lost a key satirical weapon. Visually, it no longer looked like many of the publications it parodied. And so, like it had done many times before, The Onion tagged along.
I recently spoke with Pugh about what this means for American workers, society, and public policy. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Rebecca J. Rosen: A central premise of your research is that work is about more than money—it's also about identity and relationships, particularly within a family. How does work shape us beyond our bank accounts?
The man from Hope is back. Nope, not that one—the one whose wife is leading the Democratic field. The one who succeeded him as governor of Arkansas: Republican Mike Huckabee.
Huckabee is announcing Tuesday that he's a candidate for president with a kickoff in the hometown he shares with Bill Clinton. After a strong run in 2008 and a decision to take the 2012 cycle off, Huckabee is testing whether he still has the same pull he once did.
He's the third Republican candidate to announce this week alone, and the fourth in 10 days. On Monday, neurosurgeon Ben Carson and tech executive Carly Fiorina both announced campaigns, and last week Senator Bernie Sanders announced he was seeking the Democratic nomination.
On Tuesday, ISIS took to its radio station to boast that the men who attackedthe Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest in Garland, Texas, on Sunday night were "two soldiers of the caliphate." The claim, which has not yet been verified by any American officials, is the first attack on American soil for which the terror group has taken responsibility, but ISIS vowed it would not be the last:
We tell America that what is coming will be even bigger and more bitter, and that you will see the soldiers of the Islamic State do terrible things.
How Credible Is the ISIS Link?
As federal investigators seek to determine if either of the men involved in the shooting had links to terrorists, Garland Mayor Douglas Athas told "Fox & Friends" on Tuesday morning that there was "no evidence" of an Islamic State connection.
In a story about the origins of confessional apps like Whisper and the now-defunct Secret, I recently mentionedThe Athenian Mercury, a British periodical of the 1690s that is widely credited with inventing the modern advice column. "I would honestly love to read a compilation of questions & answers from the Athenian Mercury," somebody wrote in the comment section of that story. To which I say: Me too!
Perusing these inquiries feels a little bit like wading through fields of Google auto-complete. There's something satisfying (and, okay, a little voyeuristic) about knowing the questions tugging at another person's mind. And while contemporary advice columns have a reputation for being pretty narrowly self-concerned—people often ask what to do about specific, personal problems—The Athenian Mercury dealt mostly (though not exclusively) with big, existential questions. Or, as Josh Sternberg wrote to me on Twitter, "17th-century people had a different definition of 'advice;' they were a contemplative people on the cusp of enlightenment."
Last year, as part vanity project, part science experiment, I decided to adopt a new skin-care routine, something that an aging celebrity might use on a daily basis. My goal was to determine whether, in fact, a high-tech routine can make a difference. Are beauty products worth it?
A dermatologist friend introduced me to Marie, who ran a “skin science” clinic next to his office in Calgary, Canada. This was not a medical office, but a clinic that provided cosmetic services and products aimed at helping people enhance the look and condition of their skin. “I am, really, a skin coach,” Marie told me as she showed me around the office. She had a degree in microbiology, was infectiously good-natured, and had absolutely flawless skin.
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.
Texas has the rare distinction among U.S. states of having been, for a decade in the 19th century, its own nation. That history of independence, that lingering pride of sovereignty, has never really left the state, and every so often it arouses a certain suspicion of outside forces—be it Mexicans, ISIS fighters, or most frequently, the federal government. So when the U.S. military announced plans to hold an eight-week joint exercise it called Operation Jade Helm 15 in Texas and five other western states this summer, the people of Bastrop County quickly—and with the help of radio host Alex Jones and Infowars.com—saw it for what it really was: a preparation for the military to impose martial law in the Lone Star State.