On Friday, the House of Representatives passed a continuing resolution bill that would keep the government funded until Dec. 15. The bill calls for the defunding of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which would offer government-subsidized health insurance to the nation’s uninsured. As this 41st attempt by the House Republicans to shut down the president’s signature piece of legislation is almost assured to fail in the Senate, the solvency and future economic stability of the federal government is being called into question in a marked show of extreme partisanship and brinksmanship.
For many, this current pattern of Republican legislation against social programs suggests a mentality more based on personal ideology than the tangible needs of the people. This is creating a sense that the House Republicans are acting blind to the needs of their own constituencies.
“Our message to the United States Senate is very simple: the American people don’t want the government shut down, and they don’t want Obamacare,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told colleagues after the vote. The Senate Democrats have promised to block this bill and President Obama has indicated he would veto it.
“The last thing we can afford right now is a decision by a minority of Republicans in Congress to throw our economy back into crisis by refusing to pay our country’s bills or shutting down the government,” said a White House official on Friday morning. “Instead of playing politics with the economy, Republicans in Congress should join the president to focus on creating a better bargain for the middle class.”
As the House continues to move toward significantly undermining the safety net for the poorest Americans, newly-released data from the Census Bureau reveals that the middle and lower classes have yet to emerge from the Great Recession. As reported in the Census Bureau’s current population report, “Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2012,” while statistically there has been no change in income levels from 2011 to 2012, the 2012 levels are still significantly lower than 2007 levels, showing an 8.3 percent decline in real household income. 2007 was the last year of normal economic growth before the housing bubble burst.
The report indicated that women in particular are still being hit by the effects of the Great Recession. While real incomes have not changed statistically from 2011 to 2012, the median full-time income for women is at 77 percent of the median full-time income for men. In addition, one million more men are working full-time in 2012 than were in 2011. There has been no significant change in the number of women working full-time.
Per the Census Bureau, 9.5 million families now live in poverty, representing 46.5 million people living under the federal poverty line. Of all families that have a female head of household, 30.9 percent are impoverished, as are 21.8 percent of all American children under 18. The current uninsured rate for children in poverty (12.9 percent) is significantly higher than the rate for children not in poverty (7.7 percent).
SNAP and the Republicans
Health insurance is not the only cut the Republican-controlled House has proposed. On Thursday, the House passed on party lines, 217 to 200, a bill that would cut $40 billion over ten years to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) — which offers poor individuals and families vouched funds to buy groceries. While the Republicans cited fraud as their reason, the cuts — which would remove exemptions for able-bodied individuals to stay on the program after three months’ unemployment — is estimated to deprive four million Americans of SNAP benefits in 2014.
“[SNAP] has ballooned since President Obama took office with one in seven Americans now receiving food stamps,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) wrote to his fellow House Republicans. “As SNAP has grown, working middle class families are footing the $80 billion bill for a safety net gone well beyond assistance to children, seniors, and the disabled. That is why … a working group of our conference came together to address the major problems to reform SNAP while still preserving the safety net for those who truly need it.”
This would be on top of an preexisting $5 billion-per-year cut to SNAP benefits, due to the twilighting of the Recovery Act in November. As one in seven American are receiving SNAP benefits, and, as NPR’s Tamara Keith points out, “the vast majority of SNAP recipients either work or are children, disabled or elderly,” the total reduction in yearly SNAP benefits — which amounts to 12 percent of the 2012 SNAP allocation — threatens to exaggerate an already precarious situation of poverty and wealth inequality in this country.
The myth of the “welfare queen”
In the recent narrative the Republicans are trying to push toward justifying their attacks on social programs, they point to cases such as Jason Greenslate, who was profiled on Fox News as the modern equivalent of a so-called “welfare queen.” A 29-year-old unemployed surfer from California, Greenslate argues that he is living the self-described “rat life.” A trained recording engineer, Greenslate chose to be unemployed because he felt that holding a steady job wasn’t for him.
“This is the way I want to live and I don’t really see anything changing,” Greenslate told Fox News. “It’s free food; it’s awesome.” Greenslate was recorded using his $200 per month SNAP benefits to buy sushi and lobster from the grocery store, despite SNAP prohibitions on pre-prepared foods. “Two hundred dollars a month, and you just go like, boom,” Greenslate said on camera. “Just like that, all paid for by our wonderful tax dollars.”
Greenslate has been used to bolster the Reagan-era idea that “welfare queens” are exploiting the system in record numbers. The concept was introduced during Ronald Reagan’s 1980 New Hampshire primary speech, when the then-presidential candidate said, “There’s a woman in Chicago. She has 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards and is collecting veterans benefits on four nonexisting deceased husbands. And she’s collecting Social Security on her cards. She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps and is collecting welfare under each of her names. Het tax-free cash income alone is over $150,000.”
While Reagan never mentioned the woman by name, it was clear he was talking about Linda Taylor, a then-47-year-old welfare recipient. The problem was that nothing Reagan said about Taylor was correct. Reagan based his anecdote on the sensational exaggeration from Illinois Sen. Don Moore that was picked up by newspapers. Moore made a “guess” on the nature of Taylor’s fraud, as he claimed the state’s Welfare Department refused to turn over Moore’s case file to him. While Taylor was indeed charged with welfare fraud, it was for using four aliases, not 80, and for collecting $8,000, not $150,000.
But this mattered little. Reagan was able to tap into the “Old Right” sentimentality that the government’s “forcing” of the taxpayers — outside of the taxpayers’ volition — to help out someone else is immoral. While charity is considered a good thing, neo-classical liberals hold that the government’s forcing of charitable action is an unacceptable overreach of the government’s responsibilities and authorities. Reagan’s “little white lies” helped to stir up the resentment against the perceived “welfare state” and ushered in twelve years of Republican control of the White House.
This “focusing on the negative,” however, proves illogical. In any demographic, there will be outliers — individuals who are different from the defining characteristics of the rest of the group. Say, for example, a group of friends decide to go out for pizza. One person in the group wants Chinese. That person is the outlier. If attention is given to that outlier and the group goes and get Chinese, the group as a whole goes unserved, because action was taken in consideration of the minority and not the majority. Most people using SNAP honestly need the assistance.
Thad Smith is such a person. Since being released from prison, Smith, 47, continues to make the Illinois state minimum wage of $8.25 per hour. Living in the Chicagoland area, Smith relies on his $200 per month food allowance from SNAP to survive. This works out to $5 per day. “There’s no way you can make the card last a whole month like that,” he said. “Just like jail, some days you eat, some days you don’t.”
Smith, as an able-bodied adult, may lose his only nutritional lifeline if the Republicans’ plan passes.
Beyond the morality of SNAP cuts, the fact that Republicans are introducing such deep cuts reflects a basic lack of understanding or appreciation of the economics of food stamps. The reason SNAP allocation was always a part of the Farm Bill is because SNAP is a backdoor payment system to farmers. SNAP recipients are encouraged to buy fresh fruits and vegetables with their benefits (whereas other assistance programs, such as WIC — which offers assistance to the 72 percent of SNAP recipients who are in families with children — provide recipients with processed and packaged foods). This directly finances local farmers and grocery vendors. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that every $5 of food assistance yields $9.20 in local and state economic activity.
The illogical nature of the House’s SNAP cuts reflects the continuing mission-creep toward getting rid of the PPACA — which, at this point means the Republicans are willing to potentially shut down the government or default on the nation’s debts to force the Democrats to consent to their wishes. Both show propsals a party dangerously out of control. While the Republicans’ agenda has always been clear — pro-military, pro-business, pro-family — the party’s new willingness to accept “sacrifices” toward getting what they want — like the nation’s financial stability, health coverage for the uninsured, food stability for the most vulnerable members of the population — amounts to a kind of political malpractice.
Basically, the Congressional Republicans’ recent actions speak against the promotion of the general welfare — a constitutional mandate. The use of the debt ceiling and the continuing resolution as bargaining chips violates the Congress’s mandate to pay the debts of the nation. The proposals of the House neither reflect modern-day realities or the promotion of the national health.
“What it’s clearly boiled down to is that Republicans are possessed by an overpowering psychological compulsion to repeal Obamacare even at great cost and harm to America and the GOP despite forty-one previously failed legislative attempts to do so, wrote Andy Ostroy for the Huffington Post of Friday’s House vote. “And now they can’t stop. It’s about raging, venomous, unprecedented partisan ego and out-of-control anger. The hope for logical, rational, country-first thinking has been decidedly killed off by a macro dose of hostility, resentment and fear; fear that Americans will ultimately grow to love Obamacare once they get a taste… and that there’ll be no turning back.”
Regardless, the House’s cuts seem to already be dead. The White House, in a statement, wrote, “These cuts would affect a broad array of Americans who are struggling to make ends meet, including working families with children, senior citizens, veterans, and adults who are still looking for work.” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said the House’s SNAP bill “will never see the light of day in the Senate.”