The Crazy Republican War on Food Stamps

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It's been four years since the recovery began, but for millions of people it never did. Jobs are still hard to come by, and policymakers have mostly given up trying to make them less so. But even worse than this malign neglect is House Republicans' plan to cut food stamps amidst our quiet depression.

It's cruel and unusual policy.

But at least it's cruel and unusual policy that won't happen. The farm bill failed in the House last week after conservative Republicans revolted over what they thought were too-small cuts, and liberal Democrats did over what they thought were too-big cuts to food stamps. As Josh Barro of Business Insider points out, food stamps will continue at their pre-stimulus levels as long as this deadlock continues. And that could be quite awhile. After all, the battle over food stamps isn't just a battle over budgets; it's another battle in our not-so-cold war over ideology. As the Wall Street Journal editorial page makes clear, conservatives think the welfare state is so generous that far too many people aren't, as they put it, "buying food, which is one of life's most basic responsibilities." In other words, they think the safety net has become a hammock stocked with snacks on the road to serfdom.

It's a question of incentives. House Republicans seem to think people on food stamps must just be lazy -- or worse. One Republican amendment to the farm bill would have allowed states to drug test food stamp recipients, and kick any positive test-takers off the rolls. It's the same idea Florida governor Rick Scott tried with welfare benefits -- and which cost the state money. Indeed, the Florida program didn't reduce the number of welfare applicants, but it did reduce the state's bottom line, because the cost of administering the drug tests outweighed the savings from the 2.5 percent of applicants who failed it. Fiscal conservatism!

Now, to be fair, House Republicans do have a plan to save money by kicking millions of non-drug users off of food stamps: they want to kick the unemployed off too. As it already is, food stamps, like welfare, have a work requirement. Beneficiaries have to look for a job, accept any job they can find, get in job training if they can't find one, and can't quit a job. But as Robert Greenstein of the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out, House Republicans wanted to add a "work requirement" amendment that would let states to cut off food stamp benefits to anyone without a job or in job training without providing any funding for jobs or job training. In other words, if you're unemployed, you're out of luck -- and out of food stamps.

There are lots of words that come to mind here, but sociopathic might be the first one. As my colleague Jordan Weissmann points out, food stamp use has gone up because poverty has gone up. And poverty has gone up because there still aren't enough jobs. Now, the labor market has recovered a good deal since the dark days of Lehmangeddon, but, as you can see below, there are still three unemployed people for every job opening. That's worse than it was after the tech bubble burst.

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House Republicans are ideologically incapable of imagining a world where people can't find a job because there aren't enough of them. In other words, they won't let themselves understand the world we live in. They think food stamp use is at record-highs, because people are drug addicts or just shiftless -- not because the recovery has been so weak. This insistence that our problems are all supply, and no demand, is why Republicans have opposed any and all attempts to stimulate the economy, either monetary or fiscal. It's bad economics, and worse morality.

At least Marie Antoinette wanted to let them eat cake.

Presented by

Matthew O'Brien

Matthew O'Brien is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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