Vicious Food Stamp Cuts From a Heartless System

January 27, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper |


Almost 50 million people had their food stamp allotments cut on November 1 when Democrats and Republicans in Congress allowed an extension in SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) to expire. The federal government estimates that this means 21 fewer meals a month for a family of four.

A young Chicana in Houston who works as a waitress told Revolution what this means for her and her family: "It's been really hard even before this, and we both have jobs. So I've been trying to get doubles at work, he's going in six days a week when he can. We got cut $28 a month. Maybe that doesn't sound like much to some people, but it's enough to make a real difference. Like, for instance, you want to buy juice, actual juice, for your kids. You want them to eat healthy and not just a lot of junk. But juice is so expensive compared with Kool Aid. So we get juice sometimes, but especially if there are other kids over or they go to the park it's Kool Aid. You gotta always go for the less expensive stuff. Even then, things like cereal cost a lot, and kids can go through a lot of cereal. So we're basically always trying to figure out how to cut corners, how to make things last, things like that."

More deep slashes in the program are set to follow. The only dispute within the government is over how much, how quickly. Republicans in Congress are pushing for an additional $40 billion in cuts; the Democratic counter proposal is to cut "only" $4 billion more. Whatever results from their bargaining will inflict further suffering on tens of millions of people.

An article in Revolution, "The Shutdown, the Showdown, and the Urgent Need to Repolarize ... for Revolution" provides important analysis of the framework and context for this attack. The article describes how "two blocs within the ruling class sharply contend with each other. They have very different views of what must be the 'cohering consensus' of the American 'body politic'—even while agreeing that the point of all this is to continue to buttress and expand the American empire." The fight over cutbacks in food stamp allotments—how much to cut, how quickly, who to cut first and deepest—is part of this larger battle among ruling class parties.

Hardcore Republicans argue that food stamps are morally wrong, that they only make people "dependent on government handouts," and lead people away from relying on their own efforts and discipline to get jobs. They claim that all that is needed to "break the cycle of poverty" are determination and hard work, and that programs aimed at enabling people to meet the needs of bare survival actually push people deeper into poverty.

That Revolution article points out that a core belief of these right wingers is "free market fundamentalism": "that society and government have no organized responsibility for anything bearing on the well-being and welfare of the people. This is ... a vicious individualism aimed especially at the poor and minorities." For many of them, especially those motivated by Christian Fascism, this belief is backed up by their fanatical religious beliefs. One Republican Congressman favoring deep cuts in food stamps justified his vote with the Bible: "we would give you this command: if anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat."

Leading Democrats agree on the need for massive SNAP cuts. In fact, as Joel Berg of the NYC Coalition Against Hunger said, SNAP payments were reduced "due to the actions of the President and Democrats in Congress." The Democratic leadership wants these reductions to be put in place incrementally over years, to reduce the possibility of triggering more anger, disruption, and protest among the people.

A small crew of Revolution readers in Houston went out to learn what this means for people and to bring to them the movement for revolution and Revolution newspaper. We spoke with people receiving food stamps, people at food pantries, and some people responsible for large scale food distribution to the hungry. Here is some of what they told us.

Food Insecurity

Many people who volunteer at food pantries struggle to supply nourishing food and meals to as many people as they can, and are close-up witnesses to the havoc inflicted on the lives of people constantly struggling for another meal.

A Black woman who volunteers in a food pantry said "This is horrendous. People in need are going without, not just in this part of town, but all over. People's lives are at stake, I see it happening. I know one man at my church, an elderly gentleman, he's worked all his life but he can't work anymore. And now he needs to figure out whether he can eat, or buy his medicine, or pay his rent. It isn't right. What kind of government would do that to people, let people suffer like that?"

A middle aged Chicana at the same pantry jumped in: "I don't know how we're gonna make it. I honestly don't. I'm doing everything I can, but everything seems to be working against me. I'm taking care of my mother, who's got diabetes and can't work any more. I've got some of my daughter's kids now. And I'm stretching everything as far as I can. But now we've got to figure out a way to do more with less. How can people survive like this? I don't know."

We met with Betsy Ballard, the spokeswoman for the Houston Food Bank, which the group "Feeding America" says is the largest distributor of food to needy people in the country. She told us "We know definitively that there are 137,000 people served directly through the 600 agencies we work with in Southeast Texas. That represents over one million people considered food insecure here. The population shifts all the time, for all kinds of reasons. But the numbers aren't going down. And about one third of the people I'm talking about are children, which really sucks."

"Being 'food insecure' means that people don't have access to nutritious food. In other words, all they can get is crap, if they can get anything. That's why you have obesity among people who are food insecure. The skeptics say how can they be hungry when they're so fat. But they're food insecure.

"And people being in poverty and food insecure, and coming to us, it's not one to one. Sometimes elderly people, they are proud because they've worked and supported themselves and don't want to turn to anyone for help. Sometimes people speak Spanish or other languages and think they may be in trouble if they come here."

Food stamp use is at record levels—SNAP use has tripled since 2000. Impoverished communities from Woonsocket, Rhode Island to Brownsville, Texas rely on monthly SNAP allotments for bare survival. The Washington Post reported that in "cash strapped Florida ... increasing food stamp usage has become a means of economic growth, bringing almost 6 billion dollars into the state."

Hardest hit by the cuts in SNAP are some of the most vulnerable sections of the people: 22 million children; 9 million elderly or seriously disabled people. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported that in New York State about 1 million elderly and disabled people will see their allotment drop; in Texas alone, it's 2.3 million children.

A disabled Black man told us what it's like to deal with the SNAP agencies, the uncertainties he faces month to month, day to day. "They cut mine from $200 a month to $16! How's anybody gonna live on $16 a month? You can't do it. You get a loaf of bread, maybe some tuna fish and some peanut butter, and that's it. Couldn't really live on the $200, this little check I been getting ain't much help at all."

"Then it went up to $95. Then for a couple of months it went to $96. Then it went to $80 and that's where it's been for a couple of months. We'll see what it is this month. I don't know why they keep doing it. You can't talk to no one. It's supposed to be if you're making more money you get less, but I've been disabled and out of work since 2008."

"It makes me so upset, it keeps me upset. But what are you going to do about it? It's all in the system they got, and you can't beat the system. They find a way that you always wrong. And a lot of people that really need it can't get it"."

Working Two Jobs, No Money for Food

Nationwide, the overwhelming majority of people on SNAP who are able to work do work—but this system provides jobs that don't even pay people enough to meet life's most basic necessities! One of the fastest growing sections of people who rely on SNAP just to make it is people who have jobs.

A middle aged white man from Louisiana who moved to Texas to find work told us that he "was making pretty good money. Me and my brother have always worked construction. I was making about $600 a week, and that was when we was doing pretty good.

"But then my hours got cut way back and I've been working only one day a week, if that. Plus I had to start helping out my brother. We've always worked together. But now he's got a rod in his right ankle because he broke it at work, and they say he's not disabled, but one thing I can flat out guarantee you is that no one wants to hire a 54 year old man with a broken foot to do construction work."

"So here we are. He had to move out of his place and I'm trying to provide for him and my family, pay the rent, buy the food, all that. Now they cut me back and won't recognize him as a dependent. I really ain't sure what's in store for us, but things damn sure ain't working out for me now."

A young woman who waits tables described the humiliating suspicion and scrutiny to which SNAP recipients are subjected. "It's so hard to deal with these people. It's like they want to know every little thing about you and how you live, but you can't even talk to them. I mean you really can't find them to talk to them. Like when (her husband's teenage daughter) moved in with us we put down that the number of dependents had gone up. But they wanted all this proof, even after we gave it to them.

"So they give you a number to call, and their office is in El Paso! That's like six or seven hundred miles away, but that's the office for the whole state. I finally found out where they have a little office here in some state building, but they were shocked when I went in there, and they said you can't talk to anyone here you have to call this number—the number in El Paso."

"All this was because (the teenager) moved in with us, so we said we needed one more person put on it. But you know, if you work a little extra—like my husband started working extra when he could and bringing in a little, and I do mean a little bit more on some of his checks— they know that and they say you're going to get cut because you're making too much. So it's like they're always ready to cut it, they're watching everything you do to make sure you're not cheating them somehow."

We spoke to a Black woman who reads Revolution periodically. She told us how her SNAP had been cut from $800 a month to $615—and she has six children she's caring for. Her Social Security was also cut by one-third recently. One of the ways she gets by is by borrowing from a food truck that comes around the projects—she already owes them $300 against next month's allotment.

She spoke about how "there really is no difference" between the Republicans and the Democrats ... "people with money is still people with money, no matter the name or the label. At first they try to make it seem like the Democrats are for the poor people and the Republicans are for the rich people. No. They are for the people who have money."

She said she thought "people with money" put up Barack Obama for president "to show the world that they are not racist." She also said "he's their puppet", even as she added that "he tries ... but he does it for just to make sure he gets the poor peoples' votes. Because he promised a change for the poor people. And they believed him. And to think about it sometimes, we kinda fell for it."

At the end of the interview, she read BAsics 1:20, and it hit her deeply. "I think what it is saying is pretty true. Why do they say we have the right to eat when they are cutting our food stamps? So it goes back to what you all say—that we don't really have a right to do anything. As long as you have a system that keeps cutting us back—well, before long we won't even have a right to live in this world. With all the cutbacks how are we even going to live, let alone eat?

"So wow, that said a whole lot, a whole lot in a nutshell. With all the food stamp cut backs. Which will make us do what? Go to these places and steal? You are going to steal your food. And if you get caught, where do you wind up? In jail. Starting back up from the bottom, because for stealing—that's years in jail."

"That's why a lot of people do take. You take because you don't have. And you are trying to accumulate something. People are of the mentality that 'if you don't give it to me when I ask you then I am going to take it'—I know a lot of people who have that mentality—that's how they become robbers."

"Because you never know what that person's situation is. Why did that man go stick up that store? Because maybe he had small children at home to feed and that's the only thing they can think of. Because when you take something away from somebody, you turn on another way of thinking. So if we can't get no food like this, and I can't get a job, and I can't afford it ..."

"But their main focus is trying to make that right to eat. So instead of blaming the people in society, people with money need to actually blame themselves. They government really need to blame themselves for the crime rate to even go up. For real."

Urgently needed in the face of these endless, vicious attacks is a spirit of resistance that is increasingly part of the movement for revolution the RCP is building. Revolution, nothing less can meet the needs of the people, and doing it as part of advancing revolution the world over. And that's for real.

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