It’s at first a little perplexing why Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are the only ones to talk explicitly about poverty in recent debates. The two of them mentioned poverty and low-income and poor people about 18 times in the three debates so far, compared to absolutely zero explicit mentions of poverty or poor people by Obama and Biden. No, 18 is not particularly generous considering the highest rate of poverty in two decades, but compared to their Democratic rivals, the GOP’s looking downright compassionate.
Of course, the Romney campaign’s talk of poor people is not part of a progressive economic vision. Nearly each and every time the Republicans bring up poverty, it’s wielded as an attack on Obama’s economic policy and in support of a conservative, "pro-growth" agenda. The same is true of programs for poor and low-income families. Romney has talked about food stamps eight times in the debates, each time as proof that Obama’s policies have failed. As for Obama? Not one mentioned the hunger-fighting program.
The campaigns’ disparate rhetorical treatment of poverty is worth talking about because it helps us understand what’s happening to safety-net policy. Obama’s acting scared of poverty. He’s all about ladders to opportunity and apparently also about closing the gender gap in earnings. He’ll talk around economic equity issues, but he doesn’t want to talk about poor people, and certainly not welfare and other poverty programs. Why? Because poor people and some of the programs that they depend on–food stamps, cash assistance, housing vouchers– are popularly imagined as people of color issues. And race is one thing that Obama still can’t talk about.
It’s not by accident that food stamps and the safety-net have been stigmatized and made into a racial issue. Let’s recall for a moment the Republican primary, when Newt Gingrich told an audience in New Hampshire, "If the NAACP invites me, I’ll go to their convention and talk about why the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps." And when Romney told a crowd that imposing mandatory drug tests on the recipients of safety-net programs is "a great idea." And more generally, remember the wave of bills–in 30 states earlier this year–to impose drug testing requirements on applicants to the food stamps, Medicaid, welfare and other programs, despite scant evidence of high rates of drug use among the programs’ applicants.
When Romney waxes indignant about poverty and food stamps, this is the context. He’s wielding a double-edged sword, at the same time lambasting the President for steering the country into economic chaos and then attacking the very programs that struggling people need. "We don’t have to settle" for 47 million people on food stamps, he declared, just weeks after deriding 47 percent of the country for being mooches.
For a moment, let’s think about what expanded food stamp rolls really mean. Yes, 46,681,833 people using food stamps is a sign that things are not good, a direct result of staggering levels of poverty: 46 million people living below the poverty line, over 40 percent of whom survive in deep poverty. It’s also a sign of consistently high unemployment that only just dropped below eight percent and remains much higher in low-income communities and communities of color.
But considering these are the realities on the ground, growing food stamp rolls reflect the success of a progressive value: a robust safety-net. In fact, when poverty programs like food stamps don’t grow with the demands of rising poverty, it reflects a flawed program.
That’s precisely what what happened with welfare. In the first two years of the recession, Temporary Aid for Needy Families, the cash assistance program for very poor families, failed to keep pace with growing need. According to analysis from Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, while the number of unemployed people doubled and food stamp usage rose by 45 percent, welfare rolls increased by only 13 percent nationwide and barely budged at all in at least 22 states. The sluggishness is because the TANF program had long ago been restructured, sent to the states as block grants, where funds were spread thin, allocated less to actual cash assistance and more into programs like foster care. When the recession hit, TANF dollars were just no longer available anymore to help people in desperate need of income support.
As I documented several years ago, this is one of the reasons that food stamps have been so important: without cash assistance, the anti-hunger program is the only thing many families have to rely on. The economic situation is so dire that more and more single moms who can’t find work or get help in the form of cash assistance are forced to illegally trade their food stamp benefits at a loss, with bodega owners pocketing a quarter or fifty cents on every dollar.
This brings us back to the stigmatization of food stamps. A recurring charge about the program is that it’s rife with fraud, and this makes lots of people’s blood boil.
In December, the Obama administration announced a new initiative to attack fraud in the food stamp program, "seeking to increase sanctions and penalties for retailers who engage in fraudulent activity and … to fight the practice of buying and discarding food just to get money-back deposits." Despite the fact that the rate of food stamp fraud is low compared to other federal programs, tainting just one percent of program spending, fraud prevention efforts have begun to take up a lot of space.
Local news reports reveal anxiety about how prone the program is to abuse and fraud. The reports are often about extravagant cheating. In Louisiana, federal investigators prosecuted two market owners for ripping off over $1 million SNAP dollars in a fraud scheme. The men went to jail and the feds seized a Ferrari, Porsche, BMW and Mercedes-Benz.
A Virginia market owner pleaded guilty in July to fraud for which he’s required to pay nearly $300,000 in restitution. He gave SNAP beneficiaries 50 to 65 cents on the dollar and kept the rest.
No one argues that the government shouldn’t be going after grocery store owners that fleece SNAP beneficiaries, even if they are acting as the central bank in a black market economy that exists in part because the federal government’s welfare program have failed to keep up. But by positioning the fraud prevention efforts as a problem with SNAP, rather than routine federal fraud prevention, the Obama administration may have inadvertently helped stigmatize the program.
"Whether the fraud prevention program actually improves public perception or just makes people focus on it is unclear," Elizabeth Lower-Basch, an analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy, told me. "The fact is that the rate of fraud is extraordinarily low. It’s important to take on fraud, but in this climate, the effect of making it into such an issue may do more harm than good."
Take Mississippi, which disqualified 1,705 people from the SNAP program for making false claims. According to the reports, the fraud drained $2.7 million from the program in the 12 months ending on July 1. But the 1,705 people booted off the rolls account for about less than one quarter of one percent all the nearly 700,000 Mississippians enrolled in SNAP.
And these 1,705 people aren’t driving Ferraris. They’re often people like Anita McLemore who was sentenced to three years in federal prison for lying about her criminal record on a government food stamp applications. In Mississippi, like in many other states, drug convictions make you ineligible for food stamps. McLemore lied about her record so she could get food stamps for her kids.
It’s likely that the Obama administration decided to make fraud prevention a high profile issue to get ahead of Republican safety-net bashing. But without a countervailing narrative about the vital importance of the program, the focus on fraud may fuel the safety-net attacks.
It’s a story that enters into the debate at a time when the food stamp program is on the brink of significant cuts. The farm bill, which is the vehicle lawmakers use to fund food stamps, has yet to be reauthorized. But the House version of the bill would cut food stamp spending by about two percent, or $1.6 billion a year, by limiting the number of people who are eligible for the program. House Republicans want even deeper cuts. The Senate’s farm bill would cut SNAP by $400 million a year.
And beyond funding cuts, Romney and Ryan both support making the food stamp program into a block grant so that states can do what they want with the program.
If welfare reform was any lesson, a plan like that would hobble the benefit and leave millions of families living in poverty out in the cold.