There is no intellectual debate over SNAP (food stamps)

Between 2008 and 2012, SNAP participation rose from 26.3 million to 46.6 million. We are now being presented with two narratives to explain the sudden addition of 20.3 million people to the rolls of those receiving government assistance in putting food on the table. One narrative says there was a financial crisis that led to the loss of 8.8 million jobs and a recovery that failed to generate middle-class jobs, instead leaving people trapped in jobs with such low wages that they need supplemental nutrition assistance. The other narrative says that 20.3 million people suddenly realized that instead of working they would be much happier living on $1.50 per meal. This view shouldn’t pass the laugh test. Seriously, it makes me very sad that I have to post evidence to refute it. But for the sake of completeness let me post a little evidence before I get to my main point about the SNAP debate.

First, there are still not enough available jobs. (And this is before we consider the fact that the available jobs still won’t save you from needing to rely on SNAP, because minimum wage workers still need food assistance).

Job seekers per opening

Second, SNAP primarily benefits children (45%), adults with children (26%), the elderly, and the disabled.

SNAP participants 2011

Third, if that doesn’t convince you, Brad Plumer has helpfully rounded up all of the latest academic evidence on SNAP growth.

Fourth, SNAP is not just a part of necessary budget cuts. Without going too far into the budget battles, let me point out that the cuts to SNAP in the bill just passed by the house amounts to 0.086% of the federal budget. Now the fact that it’s small relative to the overall budget wouldn’t be a sufficient reason to keep SNAP, but the fact that it works well, alleviates misery, and is a small part of the budget is a great reason to keep it around.

Fifth, did I mention that SNAP helps economic growth? Each dollar spent on SNAP generates $1.70 of economic activity.

Look, I understand that there are some issues on which smart, well-informed people with good intentions will disagree. There’s room for debate on how to improve health care, how to improve education, the degree to which the government should protect the environment or regulate the labor market (e.g. minimum wage).

But cutting a program whose primary purpose is to feed families with children, the elderly, and the disabled during hard times (like now) because of a laughable narrative in which people are intrinsically unmotivated to work and participate in community unless threatened with hunger should never be part of a sane debate on public policy.

So why is it? In 1932 Niebuhr wrote in Moral Man and Immoral Society what is still the best explanation of how politics works today, 81 years later. I’ll quote him at length:

A laissez faire economic theory is maintained in an industrial era through the ignorant belief that the general welfare is best served by placing the least possible physical restraints upon economic activity. The history of the past hundred years is a refutation of the theory, but it is still maintained…

…Men will not cease to be dishonest, merely because their dishonesties have been revealed…Wherever men hold unequal power in society, they will strive to maintain it. They will use whatever means are most convenient to that end and will seek to justify them by the most plausible arguments they are able to devise.

Frankly, the arguments against SNAP have been discredited so many times that there really is no other explanation. Any study of history will show the disasters of completely unrestricted economic power. It was clear in 1932 and it’s even clearer now. Niebuhr’s solution is fairly simple, balance power as much as possible among multiple economic actors, multiple government actors, and, in particular, by forming authentic communities that can work together to leverage their power.

In the long run, the cuts to SNAP passed by the house will not be signed into law. But with a little luck, they will remind us of the need to form communities, through our churches, our schools, and the rest of our civic society that are wiling to hold power accountable. Just doing the research and blogging about it is not going to be enough. (And believe me, no one wishes these problems could be solved through research and writing more than I do).


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