Published Sunday, September 29, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 9:57 am
Clarence Page: Fight over food-stamps hurts neediest the most

A California surfer dude has become the new “welfare queen.”

Before the House voted a few weeks back to cut food stamps by almost $40 million over the next 10 years, Politico reports, lawmakers from both parties received copies of a recent Fox News report, “The Great Food Stamp Binge.”

The report profiles Jason Greenslate, a “blissfully jobless California surfer.” The unmarried 28-year-old San Diego guitarist has taken advantage of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, better known as food stamps, while he aspires to become a rock star.

Suddenly, Greenslate became the nation’s most famous food stamp recipient, much like Ronald Reagan rebranded Chicago’s Linda Taylor as the “welfare queen” in 1975.

Taylor eventually was convicted of using multiple aliases to bilk a small fortune out of public assistance programs. She also became the archetypal welfare cheat in the long-running debate that led to sweeping welfare reform legislation in 1996.

Similarly, Greenslate quickly became the new poster child of food stamp abuse. “You can no longer sit on your couch or ride a surfboard like Jason in California and expect the federal taxpayer to feed you,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a Kansas Republican, shortly before the House voted to trim food stamps from the latest farm bill by 5 percent.

I’m against fraud and freeloaders. I’m also in favor of efforts to nudge able-bodied surfer dudes, among others, from dependency to self-sufficiency.

But the conservative war on food stamps, pushed along by myths and misperceptions, quickly begins to look like a war against the hungry.

For one thing, SNAP recipients are not all a bunch of shameless moochers. Yet the cuts approved by House Republicans would drop an estimated 3.8 million recipients, according to the Congressional Budget Office. That includes some of America’s poorest children, senior citizens and even veterans.

Some 41 percent of food stamp recipients live in a household where at least one person is working but doesn’t make enough to lift the household out of poverty, the USDA reports.

Most food stamp recipients stay in the program for only a short period of time. Half of all new SNAP participants received benefits for 10 months or less in the mid-2000s, the USDA says, up from eight months in the early 2000s. Seventy-four percent of new participants left the program within two years, compared to 71 percent in the early 1990s.

House Republicans express alarm that the food stamp program spent more than twice as much in 2010 as it did in 2007, before the recession began. But between 30 percent and 50 percent of the cost growth since 2007, according to University of Chicago economist Casey Mulligan, occurred because the recession made more people eligible.

Ironically, Republicans who voted to cut food stamp benefits represent most of the counties that experienced the largest growth in food stamp recipients since the recent recession, Bloomberg reports. Of the 254 counties where food stamps grew the most between 2007 and 2011, 213 voted for Mitt Romney in 2012, according to the USDA and election data compiled by Bloomberg.

Why? Maybe they believe, as conservatives preach, that accepting government help leads to soul-destroying economic dependency. If so, they should realize that there’s another USDA subsidy program in the same farm bill that promotes even more dependency than food stamps and it is growing just as fast: government-financed crop insurance.

As one political writer observed, “Conservatives say virtually nothing about this bailout of the rich and focus their ire on payments to the poor.” That’s no liberal I’m quoting. It’s Henry Olson, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Ethics and Public Policy Center, writing for the supremely conservative National Review Online. Among other problems, he notes, crop insurance subsidies not only are not means-tested but actually rise when crop prices — and hence agricultural incomes — rise.

Yet you don’t hear nearly as much of a clamor on the conservative talk-show circuit to cut subsidies to agribusiness. Like I say, politics is mostly driven by perceptions. That can leave the less visible poor out in the cold — and hungry.

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