A hunger expert explains what happens now that food stamps are cut

November 5, 2013

(Photo: The Washington Post)

Joel Berg is the executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Before taking the former position, he served in senior positions in the Clinton Agriculture Department for eight years. He is the author of "All You Can Eat: How Hungry Is America?" We spoke on the phone Tuesday morning; an edited transcript follows.

Dylan Matthews: So on Friday, a temporary boost to food stamps expired.

Joel Berg: Prematurely expired, it's important to add, due to the actions of the president and Democrats in Congress. Advocates don't talk about that a lot, as we don't want to upset our friends, but the truth does matter.

This boost was put in the original American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA, or the stimulus bill), and it was supposed to go away a few years later, but in 2010 the Democrats passed a bill to provide funding for states to reimburse them for Medicaid and teacher's pay, and sunset the boost earlier to pay for that. And later in 2010, to pay for the child nutrition reauthorization bill championed by the first lady, they sunset it a little earlier.

In 2010, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who was chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor at the time, came up with a great bill that passed through committee. And on the Senate side, they were going to make a bipartisan compromise and pay for it by cutting aid to SNAP nutrition education and aid to cattlemen. But then the Republicans said the cattlemen aid can't be cut. So Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, literally days after assuring advocates at a national conference she wouldn't cut food stamps, cut food stamps.

The White House pressured the House to not pass its own bill, saying that it couldn't get through the Senate. So they cut $1.4 billion from SNAP by sunsetting this increase earlier. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and the Congressional Black Caucus objected and extracted a promise that the president would fix this later. The president made some statement about that, it was in his budgets, but it's fair to say that he never really fought for it. I don't know that the president's ever mentioned it or Harry Reid has ever mentioned it in public.

This illustrates a few things. People who sell out causes that matter to look moderate, like Lincoln, will lose their seats anyway. And Democrats not doing the right thing when they're in power makes it harder to stay in power, because people don't know what they stand for anymore. When the choice is to hurt the poor or hurt agribusiness, the poor always lose. Obfuscation by the White House and Democrats in Congress helped to hide what was happening. And when you say, "We'll fix it later," when the later refers to poor people, later never comes.

Everyone says, "Oh these things were meant to be temporary." The tax cuts for the rich were supposed to be temporary, and Obama and Congress made them permanent for people making from $200,000 to $400,000.

Also, note that sequestration is hammering nutrition assistance through WIC, the FEMA emergency food and shelter program, which gives money to homelessness prevention programs and food pantries, and provides these agencies with much needed cash for rent and not just food . The sequestration also cut senior meals. We can argue until we're blue in the face as to who's responsible for sequestration, but the President did sign the bill fixing the FAA. If the idea is to make it so bad, so bad for everybody, that you have to fix it, well, the elites had it fixed for them when it comes to flying. But it's not fixed for everyone else.

And you could make the argument that the boost should be permanent, that the program was too stingy beforehand. The maximum benefit is under $2 per meal, right?

Right, the average is about $1.50 per meal, and it's going to $1.40 per meal after these cuts. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) estimates that it's equivalent to something like losing 21, 22 meals a month. Many people report to us and food pantries that even before the cuts, it only lasts two-three weeks.

The Paul Ryans of the world can sugarcoat this and say faith-based agencies will fill in the gap, or SNAP is so bloated that they won't notice. I would challenge him to tell that to the people losing the food. Is this really about deficit reduction? That'd be slightly more reasonable, but it's really about demonizing someone else's benefits. Ryan received Social Security Survivors benefits after his father died, and he didn't consider that a hammock that lulled him into a life of dependency.

Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.), a big tea partyer, received food stamps, along with his wife, earlier in life. I sent him a letter and enclosed an actual mirror, and told him, "To see what a food stamp recipient looks like, use this." The only two virtuous recipients to him, apparently, are him and his wife. And Republican congressmen have received millions in farm subsidies. They call Obamacare socialist, but Obamacare is far less socialist than farm subsidies, which are direct government payments to what was previously the private sector.

I get e-mails from progressive advocates where the implicit view is that their one issue should rise above the policy debate over funding, and they don't quite say, "Cut everything else," but that's the takeaway. It's a failed strategy, We'll be fighting for crumbs until we help the American people see the government as part of the answer to these problems.

That's why I like to point out all the times the wealthy get help from government. Trump and I both get help from government air traffic controllers, and I wouldn't consider it adequate to leave that up to Delta and American. I'm sure Trump wouldn't feel comfortable with that. And he flies in private jets, while I fly commercial with 250 other people. At that moment, Trump is getting 250 times the help from the government that those of us who ride commercial jets get.

We only define programs that go to low-income people as handouts. After going on Fox, I got an angry e-mail from someone decrying food stamps, and I asked if he would refuse to take Medicare. He said I'm an idiot, that he paid into that program. But everyone on food stamps pays taxes — payroll taxes, sales taxes, gas taxes — and the longer you live, the more likely it is that you'll use more in Medicare benefits than you pay in.

There's no question that what's underpinning this is the politics of race. There are two sorts of Republican attacks on this. One is part of a legitimate realm of discourse but wrong. That's the, "Look how horrible the economy is, isn't it proof of the failure of Obama's economic legacy, that they have to receive food stamps" argument. Most of us would say, "Absolutely that's the case, and that's a legitimate debate to have," but the people in that debate aren't credible. Their conservative policies got us here to begin with. And now those who sunk the ship want to take away the life preservers.

The other argument is, "Isn't Obama a welfare-lover," which I think is illegitimate and race-baiting. Fox was pushing me on this, "Isn't he buying off votes with food stamps?" I sent them a spreadsheet, 16 of the 20 states with highest food stamp populations voted for Mitt Romney.

The other serious argument is that welfare programs provide a work disincentive, but given how many children are on SNAP, even if you accept that, it doesn't apply to a huge chunk of beneficiaries.

That's absolutely true, and large numbers of people on the rolls are seniors or disabled as well. So it's true even if you accept the work disincentive argument — and to be clear, I don't accept it. Eighty percent of able-bodied adults on SNAP were working the year before or after getting it.

And let me point out how hypocritical conservatives are about work disincentives. I worked on the launch of AmeriCorps in the Clinton administration, which shows you the changing times. I was a New Democrat! I worked for the Democratic Leadership Council's think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute, in 1989, and my Democratic friends thought I was a right-wing sellout. I have precisely the views I had then, and now I'm a lefty.

When for AmeriCorps, they proposed tying student aid to national service, the libertarians hated it, but William F. Buckley supported it, and House liberals like former Rep. Gus Hawkins (D-Calif.) hated it. At the first hearing on it, some in the Black Caucus implied it was racist; the liberals said it was going nowhere, and they were appalled at the idea of tying aid to service, rather than income.

And conservatives opposed it, too. They claim to support Pell Grants, which doesn't have a work requirement, but oppose the AmeriCorps program with a service requirement. There's no consistency in the views there. And the policies Republicans are promulgating don't treat household labor as real work. Child rearing is not counted as work hours. Romney wanted to apply TANF standards to SNAP, so parenting wouldn't be counted.

So it raises the issue of whether they're pro-family. The Ryan budget blockgranted SNAP, and the justification was that states know how to do this better than the federal government does. But if you look at the legislation they've proposed recently, both of the bills are aimed at taking flexibility away from governors. For all their talk about empowering states, they only want to give more power to states when it hurts poor people. I'd have a lot more respect for them if there was some degree of ideological consistency, but the only consistency is shafting poor people and rewarding campaign contributors.

I miss those extreme liberals like Bob Dole and Richard Nixon. I mean, Dole was placed on the ticket in 1976 as the conservative balance, as the conservative on that ticket, and he became one of the fathers of the modern nutrition assistance safety net, and the fact that this is seen as some left-wing program is ridiculous. SNAP is a voucher program. In Brazil, you're sent to a government food warehouse. In India, you're sent to a warehouse contracted directly by the government. In America, you're sent to Wal-Mart or Krogers or Safeway. It's a credit to let you buy in the private sector. I love food banks, but they are a competitor to the free-market system, when the SNAP program is a boost to the free-market system, so with conservatives backing the former and not the latter, there's no ideological consistency whatsoever.

It's funny, after the Cold War you don't have communism to kick around, so conservatives adopt this Islamist conspiracy as the new Big Bad. I agree we face a serious threat from terrorism, but it is from people of all religions. Similarly, because they don't have true welfare to kick around, they've come up with this fake attack that food stamps are welfare. Even the Bush administration didn't call it welfare.

You know, if you really want to reduce dependency, you should raise the minimum wage. If you raise it high enough significant numbers of people would no longer be eligible for government help. No one wants a job with good wages more than SNAP recipients.

I started young, and I've never been more disgusted by my political system. You know how there's always someone outside an event with a sign about fluoridation, or the Trilateral Commission, or some other conspiracy? Now a number of them are in the House of Representatives, and they have their own TV network.

Also, if I can make fun of liberals a second, rich white liberals don't get poverty anymore. There are some exceptions, but the media that's most read by liberals hasn't focused on it, if you go to the cocktail parties white liberals attend, they'll say things about poverty but sound shockingly right wing. They'll take the traditional liberal stance on gun control, women's rights, reproductive choice, gay rights or whatever, but not poverty. Even something like Occupy Sandy, the message was government wasn't the answer. Don't they understand that they were reinforcing Reagan's message?

Forty-plus years ago, for white liberals, you had to be anti-poverty to be PC. Most had either survived the Depression or were sons and daughters of those who survived the Depression. Now they're just so far removed from experience of poverty. All the same, when George W. Bush proposed a $1 billion+ cut in food stamps, Democrats were apoplectic. And under Obama, Senate Democrats passed four times that.

Political reality is what you allow it to be. Our side should be the Grover Norquists of cuts to poor people, and we have the advantage of being morally and factually based. What drives the liberal elected officials? The media and campaign donors. With some exceptions — Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and Sen. Kristen Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) who are really energized about this — you don't hear a peep from the Democratic Party about this. There is a conspiracy of silence on both sides.

It was interesting reading Greg Sargent's piece on Republicans, and their post-election analysis that they'll have to do something about poverty. If you look back at the platforms over the past 30 years, the Republicans have spoken more about poverty. Democrats think it's in their interest to make people think that they care less than they do. Assuming de Blasio wins [as New York mayor], and barring an act of God that's gonna happen, I hope that it changes the political equation a bit, because consultants have told candidates for decades not to go near this stuff. They don't say "poor families," they say, "families struggling to get into the middle class." In each of the three presidential debates, Romney attacked Obama on SNAP, Obama did not offer a syllable of dissent, even though his mother received SNAP benefits.

Why do you think tax credits like the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit have been targeted less for cuts?

That, I would argue, is actually a case of ideological consistency. You can argue about whether the phrase "tax credit" is accurate, if it's really a welfare payment for the working poor, but because it has "tax credit" in the name, it is perceived as a tax cut. It was originally proposed by Reagan, and by definition the EITC only goes to people working. That said, the IRS audits EITC filers far more than it audited billionaires, so there wasn't a full acceptance.

EITC is different, but in terms of what you'd consider the traditional safety net, SNAP is the only thing left. Cash assistance is minuscule, and Section 8 has been eviscerated. Robert Rector at Heritage will count Medicaid as this great benefit to the poor, but it's not like you can sell your stitches or whatever. You can't eat health care. So SNAP is the only target they have left.

Also, I don't see the supermarket industry as active as they should be in fighting SNAP cuts, because they want other favors from Congress.


Burwell's official Wal-Mart portrait. Everyday low prices won't be enough to save some low-income families after Friday's SNAP cuts. (Walmart)

Yeah, that's pretty strange, especially since Sylvia Mathews Burwell, Obama's budget director, used to be a big-wig at Wal-Mart, which gets a ton of business from SNAP recipients.

For full disclosure, they are my largest single private funder. I don't know what they're doing behind the scenes. I know the Food Marketing Institute, which represents food retailers, works on it, but I would like to see the whole industry more out in front about this. It's not only about profit and jobs, but productivity. The Nobel laureate economist Robert Fogel studied England and France in the Industrial Revolution, and found one of the reasons they advanced so much was the nutritional status of working people was so much better than other countries. Factories in the third world feed the workers to boost productivity. Many Wall Street firms including Bloomberg's firm, feed people so they don't have to leave their desks. You should get Bezos to give you that.

Yeah we don't get a Seamless stipend yet. But you could probably eat for free just by going to think tank events.

You know, I live a funny existence. I support low-income neighborhoods but go to a lot of policy events and fundraisers, and you get free food everywhere. You get free food at breakfast meetings, lunch meetings, at dinner receptions. It's a perpetual food swag bag, and GOP politicians will go from one of those to giving an interview condemning poor people for getting free food.

I knew a guy in D.C. who was college-educated but became homeless, who lived under the Key bridge, and he survived by going to various receptions and acting like he deserved to be there. He'd put on a jacket and clean himself up, and it worked.

Let's suppose the political climate changes, and we're at a point where expansions to the food safety net are possible, rather than just blocking cuts. What would your ideal expansion/reform look like?

I always want to be clear that I'm still a New Democrat at heart, even though we're a nonpartisan group. I don't think the long-term answer is just a bigger, better safety net. It's a revamped economy with more well-paying jobs. You need to revive the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps. Living wage employment should be the centerpiece of any agenda.

When it comes to food programs, I've called for combining all the food programs into one program. Free school lunch/breakfast, SNAP, and WIC should all be consolidated into one program and one application, and you get it automatically when you file for your EITC, saving billions in social service bureaucracy. It'd be huge in increasing access to the benefit but many hunger groups don't support that. They worry about the unique status of each program, they're worried that making it one target will make it easier for the right to cut. I don't know that you can make it even easier to cut. I don't know how they'd get much worse.

In the context of broader poverty policy, I also want an asset empowerment agenda, so you give people hope for the future. The engine of poverty reduction is hope.This is another hypocrisy of conservative policies, particularly the idea of a SNAP asset limit. Many Republican governors want to kick off people who have anything in the bank. If you have $2,500 in the bank rather than $1,900, you can get kicked off.

If you really want to reduce long-run hunger, foodie stuff like nutrition education and farmers markets are good at the edges, but they're not the long-term solution. And there's no question that our lack of a well-functioning health-care system provided to all is a key source of hunger. Canada is the only country that measures food security the same way we do, and among equally poor people, there is far less hunger there than here. Here, when they work less, they're poorer and get less health care, that and affordable housing. If you fixed wages and made housing affordable and health care universal and affordable, even without talking about the food programs you'd solve the problem.

Homer Simpson's grill is a great example of a kludge. (FOX)
Homer Simpson's grill is a great example of a kludge. (FOX)

It's interesting that you propose consolidating programs. Johns Hopkins political scientist Steve Teles has been writing a lot of interesting stuff on this idea of policy kludges, that a major source of policy failure is the fact that for a given problem, we have five disparate federal agencies or tax expenditures or state programs trying to tackle it rather than one streamlined program.

That appeals to me intuitively but I worry that that's just an aesthetic desire on my part to make things less complicated, and that's making this look like a bigger problem than it actually is. But you're suggesting it really is a major concern.

Look at it from the point of view of an actual low-income person. In New York City, to get SNAP, you have to go to the Human Services Administration. It used to take a few days, now usually you can do it in one day, but sometimes you have to come back and end up losing a day and a half of work. You cannot legally apply for WIC there, so you have to go to a WIC clinic. If you have kids and are in the food stamps program, your kids should theoretically be signed up for free meals, but the city may not do that, and they may send you forms anyway.

You do have to physically visit a soup kitchen or food pantry if you want to get a TEFAP program, which is the old "government cheese" program. You have to go to a pantry to get that. The child- and adult-care feeding program, depending on where you live, you may or may not have access to that program. Food stamps is so complicated that many people need professionals to help apply for it.

Forget the clean lines on the organizational chart: this is a hassle for poor people. And part of it is the concept of opportunity cost. Opportunity cost always gets applied to rich people, and we almost never apply it to poor people. If you're waiting in line for two days to get benefits — if they are working, they can lose their jobs, if they're unemployed that takes time away from looking for jobs or, god forbid, raising their children.

Some of this is that the left still wants poor people to come into an office and have their case managed. The right wants it because they want stigma. The left doesn't want stigma, but they have the patronizing attitude that low-income people won't understand any of this unless someone sits down and talks them through it. They're working; they don't need a long lecture on their social work help, they need their benefits.

This whole debate on dependency has obscured the fact that a quarter of people eligible for SNAP aren't getting it. In California it's as much as 50 percent. Compare that to Social Security where basically 100 percent of people get the senior benefits. I've tried to find a number for the share eligible for Social Security who don't get it. No one has such a number. It's like 0.0001 percent. Everyone gets it, and at least a quarter of people eligible for food stamps don't get it.

It's because of the ideologies and the processes that flow from the ideologies. Social Security we think should be easy to get, since you earned it, you paid for it. Food stamps, the view is you don't deserve it, and so we'll make it a pain in the ass to get it. Social Security is run by federal government offices at the local level, with the same set of legal protections everywhere in the country. Food stamps has some protections, but it's administered differently in all the different states, and the counties are ultimately responsible at the grass-roots level. You have to reapply for it every time, whereas the vast majority of income tax compliance is voluntary.

The other progressive issue is, if everyone does what I propose, that could reduce the number of public-sector unionized jobs. But we have to accept that and deal with that. We should give them jobs doing other vital functions, do other things to help critical public services like early childhood education or working as teacher's aides. It'd be a fundamental reworking of social services at the state, local, and county level. It'd destroy the huge command and control bureaucracies.

There's so little space in our public discourse for this kind of nuanced discussion. The fact that I've been characterized as a leftist is a sign that our system has become ridiculously binary. If the question is whether I'm for more or less food stamps, of course I'm for more food stamps.


Farmer gotta farm. (Sean Stipp/AP)

We haven't really gotten into how this relates to agricultural subsidies. How does being lumped in with that affect the politics around food stamps?

I was in a very small minority of friends and progressive folks who gave the tea party a little credit. at first. The Tom DeLay Republicans were all about party and power and passed the pharmaceutical bill even though it's totally against their ideology, but I thought these tea party people were really just legitimately anti-government.

During the farm bill debate, when the the first bill with $20 billion in SNAP cuts went down, I assumed that the tea partyers voting no opposed the corporate welfare, but when they had a standalone farm bill, which was just an orgy of corporate welfare, they voted for that. Only eight House Republicans voted against it. It stripped away any fig leaf that they're anti-government intervention.

Cato and Heritage are against these subsidies, and they and I probably couldn't agree that today is Tuesday, but we agree on this. The moderates, the Pete Petersons and Concord Coalition folks, the vast majority have said these need to be changed. Free-market people say that it distorts the free market, environmentalists say it hurts the environment, anti-hunger advocates say it hurts hungry people overseas. It's reviled by left right and center, but so far the reforms are cosmetic, and slap a new name on government subsidies. When they're in this budget cutting frenzy, both the Senate and House left this intact.

A lot of foodies lump all agricultural aid together and that is way, way, way too simplistic. The direct payments are a whole different category of payments than conservation payments, which are likelier to go to small farmers, farmers of fruit and vegetables, etc. I'd scrap the entire system and say a third of the money goes to fighting hunger, a third goes to true small family farmers for conservation and the like, and then a third to deficit reduction, since I do believe, as Clinton believed, that in the long run deficits hurt progressive values, since they don't leave money for progressive goals. I'd guess 60 percent of American people, including farmers, would support that.

As it is, the money is certainly not going to small farmers. A few people in Manhattan get farm subsidies. Back in the Hoover administration, the deal was that we'd look the other way on farmers' subsidies, and they'd look the other way on food aid, and when there was enough money for both, the deal went great. It went south when less and less of that went to small farmers and there were budget caps.

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Neil Irwin · November 5, 2013