By Mike Appleton, Guest Blogger
“A government’s allowing people to starve when it is preventable reflects a lack of concern for human rights, and well-ordered regimes…will not allow this to happen.”
John Rawls, The Law of Peoples (1999)
It ought not be a matter of serious debate that every human being is entitled to nourishment sufficient to sustain life. The right to sustenance is subsumed within the right to life. We acknowledge in our founding documents that protection of that right is a primary function of government. No rational person would choose to live in a society that permitted its members to die for lack of food. Nevertheless, the food stamp program, now called the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), is under attack by Republican members of Congress. The recent vote in the House of Representatives to cut funding for the program, and the arguments advanced in support of the cuts, suggest that the GOP believes that providing the poor with enough to eat is a discretionary exercise , demanded by neither law nor morality. It appears that the Republican Party has adopted what I call the Bauer Theory of Behavior Modification. The formulation of the Bauer Theory can be found in the following statement made several years ago by its namesake, former South Carolina Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer: “My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You’re facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones who don’t think much further than that. And so what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to curtail that type of behavior. They don’t know any better.”
It would be easy to dismiss Mr. Bauer’s comment as merely unfortunate and aberrational, but for the fact that it has been repeated many times in one form or another by other Republican leaders. In March of last year, for instance, Republican Minnesota State Representative Mary Franson remarked, “Isn’t it ironic that the food stamp program, part of the Department of Agriculture, is pleased to be distributing the greatest amount of food stamps ever? Meanwhile, the Park Service, also part of the Department of Agriculture, asks us to please not feed the animals, because the animals may grow dependent and not learn to take care of themselves.”
Variations on this theme filled the halls of Congress during debate over cuts to the SNAP program. Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R. Kan.) observed, “You can no longer sit on your couch and expect the government to feed you.” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R Wash.) complained, “Since President Obama took office, SNAP has grown at an unprecedented rate, with one in seven Americans now receiving food stamps.” Rep. Tom Cotton (R. Ark.) claimed that the program is fraught with “rampant waste and abuse.” Rep. Stephen Fincher (R. Tenn.) went biblical with the out-of-context quote, “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” And in a town hall meeting, Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R. Ok.), argued that most aid programs for the poor should be eliminated. “The food programs are designed to take care of people who can’t work, not won’t work. And we all know those people that won’t work, right? They’re abusing the program, and we’ve got to get them off of it.”
The legislation itself reinforces the beliefs expressed in the foregoing comments. It permits drug testing of SNAP recipients, despite the fact that several courts have ruled unconstitutional similar provisions covering applicants for TANF benefits. And, for good measure, it makes lottery winners ineligible for benefits. I suppose gamblers should not be feeding at the public trough.
The Republican criticisms have not been burdened by the facts. SNAP is one of the most efficient government programs, with fraud accounting for only 1% of expenditures, less than the rate of fraud in farm subsidies and far less than the abysmal record in the defense industry. The program’s error rate is 3.8%, compared to 4.7% in the federal crop insurance program. The recipients of what amount to less than $1.40 per meal are not the able-bodied; 83% of SNAP benefits go to households having a child, an elderly person or a disabled person, and 61% of recipient households have gross annual income not exceeding 75% of the federal poverty level. But why has the program grown so much over the last six years? The best answer is one I used to hear from my kids when responding to a perfectly dumb question: “Well, duh, Dad.” With the financial collapse of 2008 and the highest unemployment rates since the Great Depression, there are now almost 47 million people living in poverty in this country. The math isn’t difficult.
The lack of a factual basis for the Republican demand for benefit cuts leads us back to Mr. Bauer. The Bauer Theory is not about poverty, but about the impoverished. The program cuts are not aimed at reducing poverty; they are rather a statement of moral condemnation. Poverty is not about a lack of jobs or educational deficiencies or structural inequality. It is a product of indolence, irresponsibility and immorality. Under the theocratic political philosophy now dominating Republican policy arguments, poverty is proof of moral decay to the same extent that material wealth is proof of moral righteousness.
We are becoming a nation of prigs.