Democrats see food stamps as a crucial part of the social safety net. If Republican budget hawks want to demonstrate that they really are a bunch of "mean-spirited" Scrooges, they couldn't pick a better target to cut.
Yet that's exactly what House Republicans did, narrowly passing a farm bill on Thursday that would cut $40 billion in spending on food stamps over a decade, even though Senate Democrats oppose it and President Obama has threatened to veto it.
So why did conservatives bother going after food stamps at all? The answer, says Ruth Marcus at The Washington Post, is that they see the program as "entitlement spending gone wild."
The right argues that the program has grown dangerously large during the Great Recession. Spending on food stamps doubled from 2000 to 2007, reaching $35 billion, then more than doubled again in the economic downturn, reaching $83 billion this year.
One U.S. resident in seven now gets benefits in an average month, which works out to almost 48 million people. Marcus argues that just shows the program is working as it should, keeping the poor fed in hard times.
But conservatives don't see it that way.
The right's case against food stamps — formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — goes like this, according to Henry Olsen at National Review. They "cost too much, have grown too quickly, encourage government dependency, and discourage work."
The Heritage Foundation is leading the charge. Rachel Sheffield, writing at the conservative think tank's The Foundry blog, says trimming the program is essential to keep it from pinching the struggling middle class. Republicans say that 4 million of those receiving food stamps each month are able-bodied adults with no dependents, and that many of them do little, if any, paid work. (To be sure, most food stamp recipients are single mothers, children, the elderly, and the disabled.)
Sheffield argues that the House GOP's proposal would help "ensure that the food stamp program is focused on helping those truly in need" by closing loopholes that have let states loosen income requirements and asset tests for applicants. It also encourages optional programs to help able-bodied recipients find work. If anything, Sheffield argues, the bill should go further, and make such programs mandatory for any state that gets federal food stamp money.
A strong work requirement is vital to reform. Policymakers should look to the 1996 welfare reform as a model for encouraging work and self-sufficiency. [The Foundry]
Conservatives say they "aren't merely trying to take away food stamps for the sick, cruel fun of it," as Erika Johnsen explains at Hot Air. They are trying to enact healthier economic policies, and to address the root of the country's high unemployment and financial pain.
The optics are still bad though. Especially when you consider that the GOP's farm bill leaves alone a subsidy that definitively breeds dependency and is growing just as fast, says Olsen, a senior fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center: Government-financed crop insurance that costs $8.6 billion a year, with most of the loot going to farmers making upwards of $250,000 a year. Here's Olsen:
Robert Kennedy was famous for saying, "Some people ask why; I ask why not." I'm a simple man, so I'll just ask a simple question. Why, conservatives? Why? [National Review]