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What I Learned from a Week on Food Stamps: Paul Ryan Couldn’t Be Any More Wrong

Republicans have their sights set on food-stamp cuts that would devastate lower-income Americans.

“Can I help you with something?” said a pleasant English-accented voice. It was 4:46 p.m. on a Saturday and I’d been staring — face contorted with confusion — at the buzzer directory of 12 East 14th St. None of the names on the fourth floor suggested I was in the right place.

It was then that I spun around to see a tall man in his mid- to late 30s leading a baby-bearing stroller into what it was now clear to me was an apartment building.

“I think I have the wrong address,” I stammered.

“Sometimes people…” the English dad started to say before trailing off. Recalibrating, he got to the point: “The welfare center is West 14th Street.”

I felt the blood rush to my face; I could no longer meet his eyes. I mumbled something quick about being on assignment, then thanked him before scurrying across Fifth Avenue.

What I didn’t explain to that English dad was that, as part of the story I was writing, I had decided to experience for myself what it’s like to survive on money from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistant Program (SNAP), better known to most as “food stamps.” To apply, one must go to one of 16 food-stamp centers for an application and interview. I wondered how many of the 1.8 million people in the city who are on SNAP — including a full third of Brooklynites — felt as sheepish as I did at being pegged needing what that dad had called “welfare.”

* * *

It has been 50 years since President Lyndon B. Johnson — the architect of the modern food stamp — set out to “ conquer poverty” in America. Some, like Rep. Paul Ryan, are ready to declare the “War on Poverty” a failure, and  gut funding for things like food stamps. What their objections ignore, however, is that SNAP is vitally important to 47 million Americans — one sixth of our country, from rural plains to swelling cities. And the program works. During the recession, SNAP “kept about four million people above the poverty level and[...] prevented millions more from sinking further into poverty,” Ron Nixon  reported in the New York Times, citing Census Bureau figures. However, fueled by popular mischaracterizations about “takers” and “welfare,” the House of Representatives voted in September to cut almost $39 billion over a 10-year period from SNAP. While that proposal generated significant blowback from Democrats, a tentative compromise still leaves much to be desired: The final deal – quietly negotiated while the political sphere focused on Chris Christie — includes  $9 billion in cuts from the program over a 10-year period.

The basic, flawed assumption of SNAP’s critics is that those who need food stamps to eat are voluntarily out of work, and that, by removing these programs, “takers” are forced to find jobs.

“If you’re able-bodied, you should be willing to work,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said about the SNAP cuts.

“This bill makes getting Americans back to work a priority again for our nation’s welfare programs,”  said House Speaker John Boehner.

Rep. Stephen Fincher (whose district receives millions in farm subsidies) even  quoted the Bible to make his anti-SNAP point: “For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.”

Cantor et al. would be wise to know that  41 percent of SNAP recipients are in a household generating income. Yet, for some “able-bodied” workers, a meager income is still not enough to put food on the table. Employees of Wal-Mart and McDonalds, for example, are major beneficiaries of SNAP. (A 2012  Daily Kos article reported that 80 percent of Wal-Mart’s employees benefit from SNAP. One Wal-Mart in Canton, Ohio, even held a  food drive for their fellow employees struggling to afford the cost of Thanksgiving dinner.) Those SNAP beneficiaries who are not employed include children, the disabled and the elderly. It is estimated 25 percent of households that benefit from SNAP include an elderly family member, and  72 percent of such households include children. In fact, at some point in their childhood,  a full half of America’s children will be fed with food stamps. In 2011, only 11 percent of food-stamp recipients in New Jersey were single, childless, non-disabled, non-elderly adults.

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