Man, Congressional Republicans really do have it in for the food stamp program, don't they? They've tried to slash its funding. They've nixed it entirely from the Farm Bill. And at the moment, they seem to be toying with the idea of letting states create new work requirements for beneficiaries, which is a nice way of saying "kick more people off food stamps."
All of this is happening at a time when some 47 million people in the U.S. have come to rely on food stamps -- or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program as it's technically called -- to feed themselves. (If that number sounds high to you, just remember, there are more than 46 million Americans living below the poverty line.) That got us wondering: Just how many of their own constituents are Republicans essentially telling to go hungry nowadays? After all, food stamp recipients are spread across red and blue states alike, with some of the highest concentrations in the ever-conservative Southeast.
And hey, it's not as if only liberals ever need help paying for a meal.
To get an answer, we dug through Census data* on the number of food stamp recipients in each House district in the 112th Congress, which was in session from January 2011 until January 2013, then compared areas represented by Democrats and Republicans (check out the spreadsheet here). What we found wasn't necessarily shocking, but it was instructive. Republicans tend to represent plenty of food stamp recipients, but unlike many Democrats, not nearly so many that they'd ever have to worry about them at the polls.
In the average congressional district, we found that about 11 percent of all households received food stamp benefits. In Democrat-controlled seats, the average was about 13 percent, while in Republican districts it was about 10.7 percent. That difference might seem small, but as is often the case, the averages hid some vast variations.
As shown in the chart below, GOP districts tended to be very consistent. In almost half of them, 8 to 12 percent of households benefitted from food stamps (percentages are rounded). Not so for Democrats, who represented a much larger number of high-food stamp areas. Of the 34 districts where at least 20 percent of all households got food help from Washington, all but four were represented by Democrats.
Another way to think of it: In about a quarter of Democratic districts, 18 percent or more of all households received food stamps. That was true in just 6 percent of Republican districts.
Some of this might be self-fulfilling. In districts where lots of residents rely on the social safety net, voters probably aren't going to be fond of politicians who campaign on cutting their benefits. But it also sets up an interesting tension. Completely setting aside ideology or ethics, it makes sense for the GOP to oppose food stamp spending from the perspective of interest group politics. The program is essentially a financial transfer from their districts to Democratic-leaning areas. Moreover, it seems reasonable to assume that a lot of those food-stamp beneficiaries in Republican districts vote Democrat anyway.
But consider it this way: When most House Republicans talk about cutting food stamps, they're saying that they're ok with the idea that at least one out of every ten households in their district will have a tougher time putting food on the table, and will have less money to spend on local businesses. Now, politicians like Louie Gohmert might think that's ok because poor families eat too much anyway and are just using their benefits to buy expensive king crab legs (13 percent of his constituents use food stamps by the way). But for those of us a bit more strongly tethered to reality, it ought to cause a bit of concern.
*A few words about the numbers: We used the American Community Survey's most recent three-year rolling averages, which combined data from 2009 through 2011, a time period when the food stamp rolls were steadily rising. As a result, our figures almost certainly underestimate the number of recipients across districts. By 2013, more than 23 million households received food stamps, far more than the 13 million we found when adding the total from each congressional district together. Nonetheless, we think these figures are useful for comparing red and blue seats, at least prior to the 2012 election.