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.
Freddie Gray's death on April 19 leaves many unanswered questions. But it is clear that when Gray was arrested in West Baltimore on the morning of April 12, he was struggling to walk. By the time he arrived at the police station a half hour later, he was unable to breathe or talk, suffering from wounds that would kill him.*
Gray died Sunday from spinal injuries. Baltimore authorities say they're investigating how the 25-year-old was hurt—a somewhat perverse notion, given that it was while he was in police custody, and hidden from public view, that he apparently suffered injury. How it happened remains unknown. It's even difficult to understand why officers arrested Gray in the first place. But with protestors taking to the streets of Baltimore since Gray's death on Sunday, the incident falls into a line of highly publicized, fatal encounters between black men and the police. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, a reserve sheriff's deputy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, pleaded not guilty to a second-degree manslaughter charge in the death of a man he shot. The deputy says the shooting happened while he was trying to tase the man. Black men dying at the hands of the police is of course nothing new, but the nation is now paying attention and getting outraged.
In Baltimore, where 25-year-old Freddie Gray died shortly after being taken into police custody, an investigation may uncover homicidal misconduct by law enforcement, as happened in the North Charleston, South Carolina, killing of Walter Scott. Or the facts may confound the darkest suspicions of protestors, as when the Department of Justice released its report on the killing of Michael Brown.
What's crucial to understand, as Baltimore residents take to the streets in long-simmering frustration, is that their general grievances are valid regardless of how this case plays out. For as in Ferguson, where residents suffered through years of misconduct so egregious that most Americans could scarcely conceive of what was going on, the people of Baltimore are policed by an entity that perpetrates stunning abuses. The difference is that this time we needn't wait for a DOJ report to tell us so. Harrowing evidence has been presented. Yet America hasn't looked.
Does Adam Sandler have an expiration date? Does his particular brand of slapstick—humor that's infused with a wan self-deprecation, that manages to be simultaneously silly and sociopathic, that once found Sandler punching Bob Barker in the face while informing him that "the price is wrong, bitch"—hold up? Is Sandler's own price now, finally, wrong?
Recent events would suggest yes. Late last week, in the course of filming Sandler's newest project, the made-for-Netflix Western spoof The Ridiculous 6, a Native-American cultural advisor and several performers and extras walked off the set in protest. (Sample characters: Beaver Breath, No Bra, Sits-on-Face. Sample line: "Say honey: how about after this, we go someplace and I put my peepee in your teepee?") As Allison Young, a Navajo actress who quit after being asked to do a scene "requiring her to fall down drunk, surrounded by jeering white men who rouse her by dousing her with more alcohol" told the Indian Country Media Network, “We talked to the producers about our concerns. They just told us, ‘If you guys are so sensitive, you should leave.’”
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency and called out the National Guard on Monday night, "to address the growing violence and unrest in Baltimore City." Later Monday night, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced that a week-long curfew would be imposed on the city. Maryland State Police said they would request an additional 5,000 officers from the mid-Atlantic region to restore order.
Earlier in the day, police clashed with demonstrators during protests over the death of a young black man in police custody. Video footage showed a handful of protesters and bystanders throwing rocks and bottles at police officers in full riot gear, who responded with pepper spray and tear gas. City officials said at a press conference on Monday night that 15 officers had been injured and two were hospitalized, including one officer who was reportedly “unresponsive,” although further details about his or her condition were not immediately available. "Too many people have spent generations building up this city for it to be destroyed by thugs," Rawlings-Blake told reporters.
Police say that intentionally banging a suspect around in the back of a van isn't common practice. But the range of slang terms to describe the practice suggests it's more common that anyone would hope—and a roster of cases show that Freddie Gray is hardly the first person whose serious injuries allegedly occurred while in police transit. Citizens have accused police of using aggressive driving to rough suspects up for decades in jurisdictions across the country. Though experts don't think it's a widespread practice, rough rides have injured many people, frayed relationships, and cost taxpayers, including Baltimore's, millions of dollars in damages.
On Monday afternoon the funeral for Freddie Gray took place in Baltimore, Maryland. Gray died last week from spinal injuries suffered while in Baltimore Police custody. After the funeral, against the wishes of the Gray family, some peaceful demonstrations took place, but other protests became violent, devolving into chaotic clashes.
Take a walk along West Florissant Avenue, in Ferguson, Missouri. Head south of the burned-out Quik Trip and the famous McDonalds, south of the intersection with Chambers, south almost to the city limit, to the corner of Ferguson Avenue and West Florissant. There, last August, Emerson Electric announced third-quarter sales of $6.3 billion. Just over half a mile to the northeast, four days later, Officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown. The 12 shots fired by Officer Wilson were probably audible in the company lunchroom.
Outwardly, at least, the City of Ferguson would appear to occupy an enviable position. It is home to a Fortune 500 firm. It has successfully revitalized a commercial corridor through its downtown. It hosts an office park filled with corporate tenants. Its coffers should be overflowing with tax dollars.
“People skills” are almost always assumed to be a good thing. Search employment ads and you will find them listed as a qualification for a startling array of jobs, including Applebee’s host, weight-loss specialist, CEO, shoe salesperson, and (no joke) animal-care coordinator. The notion that people smarts might help you succeed got a boost a quarter century ago, when the phrase emotional intelligence, or EI, entered the mainstream. Coined in a 1990 study, the term was popularized by Daniel Goleman’s 1995 book . Since then, scores of researchers have shown how being in touch with feelings—both your own and other people’s—gives you an edge: compared with people who have average EI, those with high EI do better at work, have fewer health problems,and report greater life satisfaction.
Orr:Wait a minute. There’s a royal wedding—and nobody dies a horrible death? A man is beheaded—and we can all agree that it was for the best? What the hell show am I watching? I came here for Game of Thrones, baby, not Wizards of Waverly Place.
I kid, of course. Given David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s tendency to take George R. R. Martin’s material and render it even more bloody than it already was, I’m actually mildly relieved that they didn’t throw in a random homicide just to spice up the nuptials of Margaery and young Tommen, First of His Name.
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.