The congressman had been called a "starvation expert" by analysts on TV and a "monster" by colleagues in the House of Representatives. Protesters had visited his offices carrying petitions demanding he resign. And now, six months into his crusade to overhaul the food stamp program, Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.) departed the Capitol to address his most wary audience yet: the people whose government benefits he hoped to curtail.
"Stick to your talking points this time if you can," said a staff member, handing him a sheet of those talking points minutes before they left for the event.
Rep. Steve Southerland listens to staffers during an afternoon meeting in his congressional office.
"It’s too late to start being cautious," Southerland said, folding the paper and leaving it on his desk. It was already late summer, and he hoped to pass the most significant food stamp overhaul in decades by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.
The event was listed on his schedule as a "Poverty Tour," and Southerland had invited a dozen Republican policy experts to join him. They boarded a bus provided by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, and traveled across Washington to a job training center, where three homeless men idled outside. Southerland stood at the front of the bus to address his colleagues. He looked like the funeral director he had been before running for Congress in 2008 - shoes polished, suit pressed, eyes solemn, head bowed as if in prayer. "This is an important moment for us," he said. If only his tough-love message could resonate with the unemployed, then maybe he could win over a divided Congress.
"What we are fighting for is a cultural shift," Southerland told his colleagues on the bus. "The explosion of food stamps in this country is not just a fiscal issue for me. This is a defining moral issue of our time."
This is the fourth in a series of stories by Washington Post staff writer Eli Saslow looking at the U.S. food stamps program.
The food stamp economy: A look at how food stamps drive the economy in a Rhode Island town.
The recruiter: A food stamp recruiter deals with wrenching choices.
Summer lunches: A new way to help hungry children: A bus turned bread truck
Too much of too little: A diet fueled by food stamps is making South Texans obese but leaving them hungry.
Waiting for the 8th The months seem a bit longer for a D.C. woman and her family after recent cuts to the food stamps they rely on.
Southerland’s food stamp proposal, which on Thursday the House narrowly voted to approve, would require able-bodied adults to work or volunteer at least 20 hours each week in order to receive government food assistance. "It’s the simple solution," he said in March at a news conference introducing the idea. But in the months since, he has learned that no idea is simple in Washington, especially not one that would fundamentally alter a program that has tripled in size during the past decade, growing to support a record 47 million people at a cost of $80 billion each year.
In a divided Congress, few debates have been more fractious than the one over food stamps and few proposals have been as contentious as Southerland’s. Republicans say his idea would encourage people to find jobs, decreasing government spending while adding workers to the economy. Democrats say it would leave millions of the most vulnerable Americans hungry at a time when food insecurity is already approaching historic highs.
Southerland’s proposal passed the House despite receiving no Democratic support, as part of a bill that would cut 3.8 million people and $4 billion from the food stamp program next year. But that vote was only the first of many. In order to become law, his work requirement must survive a conference committee between leaders in the House and Senate, two more congressional votes and a president already threatening a veto.
Rep. Steve Southerland laughs with Fannie Chaney during a break in her training session at America Works, a job training program in Washington. Under Southerland’s proposal, food stamp recipients such as Chaney would have to be working, volunteering or training to work in order to receive food stamps.
"Getting something done here can be like navigating a maze," Southerland said.
On this day, the maze led him up the stairs to the training center, where 25 residents of Southeast Washington were crammed into a classroom to learn tips about preparing for a job interview in fast food. All were unemployed. Most were among the 24 percent of Washington residents who receive between $100 and $600 each month in food assistance.
"Shower. Tuck in your shirt. Make eye contact with the interviewer," the teacher was saying.
"Make sure your belt and your shoes match," Southerland interjected, walking into the room with his colleagues and then introducing himself.
He began as he always does by telling his family story, which aides refer to as "the Gospel of Work." His grandfather quit school in the sixth grade and made himself into the busiest funeral director in Panama City, Fla., continuing to work until he died at 91. Southerland started helping in that same funeral home before he turned 10, answering phones, washing cars and arranging flowers as he learned the family business. He required each of his four daughters to apply for work at a nearby restaurant on the day she turned 15. "Work is life. Work is opportunity," he said now. He quoted from the Bible, citing a passage about how God created Adam to tend the Garden of Eden. "Even in paradise, we worked," he said. "Work is not a punishment. It is what connects you with your purpose in life. What’s your purpose?"
One by one, the men and women in the classroom stood to share their plans. One wanted to become a teacher. Another said his "purpose" was to make at least $10 an hour. A man who had just cared for his dying mother thought maybe he could become a hospice nurse. "I liked the feeling of taking care of her, just knowing I was needed," he said.
"Yes!" Southerland shouted, clapping his hands, punching his fist against the air. "Now that’s a purpose. Don’t wait for your ship to come in. Swim out to it."
An older woman raised her hand in the corner of the classroom. She explained that she had been on public assistance most of her life. Food stamps helped her feed three kids. "I’ve been through dark times," she said. "I needed help, and I got it. Do you believe that’s wrong?"
Southerland thought for a few seconds and then took a step toward her. "I believe that if you are going to eat, you should bring something to the table," he said. The woman started to interrupt, but Southerland held up his hand. "That can be volunteering. That can be delivering Meals on Wheels, But somehow you’ve got to contribute. "I believe in a God-given purpose," he told her.
"I believe that being dependent makes you more vulnerable. I believe work is the greatest gift you will ever receive."
Rep. Steve Southerland runs back to his office before a vote. “Hurry is the devil,” he often says, but life in Washington forces him to hurry nonetheless.
For the past six months, Southerland had been translating those beliefs into a succession of 14-hour workdays, trying to will his proposal into existence. He had delivered 45 speeches about food stamps, consulted with 20 anti-poverty experts and presented his idea to 13 governors. He had studied persuasive-writing techniques and read half a dozen books about effective leadership. And yet the biggest legislative project of his life still existed only on paper, inside two binders on his office shelf labeled "Important."
Employment rate among SNAP recipients remains steady even as number of recipients surges
The recession produced a surge in individuals receiving benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, bringing the U.S. average from 9 percent in 2008 to 15 percent in 2012. Of those recipients, households with at least one non-elderly, able-bodied adult with earned income has remained around 30 percent throughout that time.
Percentage of households that have earned income among SNAP recipient households in the United States that have one able-bodied, non-elderly adult
SNAP recipients with
no earned income
Recipients with earned income
Percent of population receiving SNAP, 2008-2012
Select a line for details
Sources: Census Bureau, Agriculture Department, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
Southerland had left his job at the funeral home in 2007 to run for office on a platform of small government and Second Amendment rights despite having no legislative experience and no connections in Washington. When it looked as if he would win, to become the first Republican elected in his district in 130 years, he went to the library to study books about the legislative process. Write a bill. Get a sponsor. Go to committee. Debate. Vote. Senate. President. Only in the past few months, Southerland said, had he begun to learn "all the behind-the-scenes steps nobody talks about."
His food stamp proposal was not, in fact, his proposal. It was something that was handed to him by a stroke of political luck. He had wanted to pursue food stamp reform since arriving in Washington, but he lacked authority as a junior lawmaker relegated to subcommittees on fisheries and highway transportation. Instead, the idea for a work requirement came from 17 state human service secretaries who gathered in November to pitch their proposal to Republican members of the House Ways and Means Committee, who forwarded some of those ideas to Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who suggested the human service secretaries work with Southerland because, Cantor said, he was "a passionate true believer."
"Absolutely! This is what I’m about," Southerland had said, promising to make the proposal his No. 1 priority until it passed.
Now his color-coded office schedule had become a rainbow of food stamp events: red for anti-poverty tours, blue for private meetings, black for lobbyist appointments and the rare sliver of teal for personal time. He was meeting regularly with Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, to learn how to sell the idea by using active language, such as "earned success," "sweat equity" and "upward mobility." He was asking Newt Gingrich to give supportive interviews and Rick Santorum to write op-eds.
The best chance to enact reform, Southerland had decided, was to make the specifics of his proposal "utterly unobjectionable," he said. Even though he believed in a 40-hour workweek, his proposal would mandate only 20. Even though he wanted it to be a national requirement, states would be able to implement or ignore it. There would be exemptions for the elderly, the disabled and mothers with children under 1. Some conservatives refused to back his proposal because it was "too soft," he said, but Southerland was willing to trade their endorsements for more-widespread support.
Earlier in the summer, he stood on the House floor to present his idea to the entire chamber for the first time. He planned to speak for two minutes. After 10 seconds, he noticed a dozen Democrats moving toward a microphone, lining up for rebuttals.
"Egregious," one said.
"Unbelievably misguided," said another.
Rep. Steve Southerland washes his pickup truck in Panama City, Fla. He flies home every weekend because his routines there help keep him grounded, he says.
Several weeks later, still reeling from what he called the "debacle on the floor," Southerland climbed into a black SUV in northwest Florida to drive across his congressional district with Jonathan Hayes, his chief of staff. They had booked seven events in two days, a trip that would cover more than 300 miles, but Southerland was looking forward to the drive. He hung his suit jacket in the back seat and grabbed a tobacco pipe. "Even if we’re working nonstop, the stress fades when I’m here," he said.
His trips home sometimes made him wonder why he had ever decided to leave. In Panama City, he had left behind the wife he met in first grade and their four daughters, two of whom were still in high school. He missed his single-story house in the Panama City suburbs, where friends mostly wanted to talk about deer season and where even the most ardent Democrats respected the Southerlands for their work ethic and their Southern Baptist faith.
"In Washington, if someone disagrees with you, the problem must be your heart - you must be evil," he said. "Here, if we fight, we are only fighting about an idea."
On some days, Southerland also pined for his old job: 450 funerals every year, each not only a crisis for the family of the deceased but also a chance to make an immediate impact on the living. The funeral home had five phone lines, including one that rang straight to Southerland’s house when a death occurred in the middle of the night. Stillbirths, abductions, car accidents — he worked the funerals that others in his funeral home tried to avoid. He stood beside relatives as they visited the body. He rode with them in the hearse. Sometimes, at the grave sites, he sang hymns in a deep and mournful baritone. Nobody ever questioned his heart or his motives. He never doubted the value of his work.
Each funeral helped clarify his priorities. No matter whom they buried - backwoods alcoholics and resort owners, immigrants and veterans, in birch boxes and blue velvet caskets - the best eulogies remained the same. They were stories of family, friendship, ambition and hard work. Work created a legacy. Work provided meaning.
"I never heard anybody remembered for the things they didn’t do, or the impact they didn’t make, or the dreams they didn’t have," Southerland said as the SUV crossed into Liberty County, the center of his district.
Motels just east of Panama City house long-term residents who cannot afford homes. The poverty level in Florida's 2nd District is slightly above the national average.
He looked out the window at the twisting Apalachicola River, its brown water buffeted by green cedars and Spanish moss. Some locals in Liberty County believe the Garden of Eden had once existed on a bluff high above the river, and the land had been home to Seminole and Creek tribes, Spanish missionaries, British settlers and the Confederate Army - a place where societies rose and then fell. On his drives through the area, Southerland sometimes wondered if he was witnessing another civilization in decline. Many stores in downtown Bristol were unoccupied and boarded up. The poverty rate was 25 percent. A pawnshop advertised "cheap guns," and a gas station sign read, "Food stamps welcome here."
"Food stamps welcome everywhere," Southerland said, seeing the sign.
"So many people, just stuck," Hayes said.
"This is the fifth generation of dependency," Southerland said. "We have encouraged people to be sharecroppers instead of owning the land. The casualty of human capital, only eternity knows."
As he pushes to overhaul the food stamp system, Rep. Steve Southerland flies home every weekend. He says his routines there help keep him grounded.
They crossed through the dense pines of Apalachicola National Forest, where intergenerational poverty was hidden behind the trees. Southerland had received letters from people here who lived in trailers on unincorporated land. They wanted help buying food. They wanted opportunities for their children. How could Southerland convince them that this was one problem government alone could not solve? The United States had already spent 50 years and $16 trillion on the war against poverty, and yet the wealth gap continued to grow and the rate of extreme poverty in rural Florida had increased for eight consecutive years. If anything, government was complicit, Southerland thought. It had drained people's ambition by giving them just enough money to stay poor. "It’s a travesty, what we’ve done," he said. Food stamps were necessary to ward off desperation for the truly vulnerable - the disabled, sick, elderly - but they didn’t count as a way of life. The only chance to create opportunities for the next generation, he said, was to do what his grandfather had done, accepting groceries and tools in exchange for burial services to keep the business alive that first year; or what his father had done, risking the family’s emergency savings to build a bigger funeral home; or what Southerland himself had done, working 80-hour weeks to double the family business and expanding it into granite and timber.
"Government might help you survive," he said, "but work creates lasting improvement."
Now Southerland arrived in Tallahassee to tour a job training facility for the homeless, where he hoped to tell residents about his proposal. Fifteen minutes into the visit, he noticed a videographer following him on the tour. He recognized the man as a Democratic activist who was making campaign videos for Southerland’s opponent in the next election. The ads would splice Southerland’s words and make him into a caricature, he thought. They would dismiss his qualifications and distort his ideas. They would question not only his policies but also his motives.
He pulled one of the program’s founders aside midway through the tour.
"I’m mostly going to listen today," Southerland said, gesturing at the videographer. "Anything I say here could be turned against me."
Southerland gives his interns Kelsy Wall and Lamarious Myers a tour of the Capitol.
This was the part of being a congressman that Southerland had begun referring to as the "devil’s duty" — the strategic part, when true belief capitulated to politics. And as the end of the fiscal year neared, it was politicking that dominated his schedule, first in Florida and then back in Washington.
In the run-up to Thursday’s vote, Southerland met with Republicans four times in Cantor’s office, and Cantor promised to push for a work requirement in the final version of the bill. But Democrats in the House and the Senate continued to object to even minor changes, promising to defeat Southerland’s proposal even after it passed the House by seven votes. They disagreed not only with Southerland’s proposal but also with his diagnosis of the problem and with his facts.
He said food stamp spending was "growing into oblivion"; Democrats said it would decrease just as quickly once the economy improved.
He cited data from the Agriculture Department indicating that half of food stamp recipients had stopped looking for work; Democrats countered with data also from the USDA showing that the fastest-growing demographic on food stamps was people who did work, but in jobs that paid so little they still qualified for the benefit.
He said his proposal would encourage people to enter the workforce; they said encouragement was useless since his proposal provided no guaranteed money for job training programs.
He said that only working-age adults would be affected by the requirement; they questioned what would happen to the children of those working-age adults if their parents didn’t find jobs and their families lost food stamps.
"We are dealing with opposite realities," Southerland said. "So you fight and fight and fight and maybe get half of what you want."
One night, exhausted and eager for a break, he left the Capitol to have dinner with his eldest daughter, Samantha, along with Hayes and his communications director, Matt McCullough. Samantha had graduated from college in Florida and moved to suburban Virginia to learn about government and be closer to her father.
"How’s life in the crazy Capitol?" she asked now, over milkshakes and burgers.
"This place is a mile wide and an inch deep," Southerland said.
In Play posed the same questions about the food stamp program to two lawmakers with very different views. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), left, and Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.). (The Washington Post)
He explained that he had spent the past few days studying 20 years of food stamp policy, trying to differentiate himself from his colleagues by becoming an expert. "Nobody here really knows anything," he said. He thought about that for a second and then reconsidered. "There’s one other guy," he said. "A Democrat." He told her about a Massachusetts liberal named Jim McGovern, who had been giving a speech about hunger on the House floor each week. McGovern had rallied the Democrats against Southerland’s proposal. Out of 435 people in the House, he was the only one who had studied food stamps just as hard and who seemed to care just as much.
"What does he say about all of this to you?" his daughter asked. "I don’t know," Southerland said. "I haven’t talked to him."
"What?" she said. "Seriously? Never? That doesn’t make sense." She knew her dad as a conciliator who valued mentoring young men at church, yearly hunting trips with his three siblings and funeral director retreats to the mountains. "Your whole thing is connecting with people," she said. "Everybody likes you." And yet here was another Washington lawmaker, elected to solve the same problems, who had become an expert on the same issue, who worked in the same place, and her dad had never met with him?
"Can’t you ask him to coffee?" she asked. "You could work together."
"That wouldn’t play so well with the conservative base," Hayes joked.
"Or back in district," McCullough said.
"Honey, look," Southerland said, staring at her intently, pleading with her to understand. "Washington is a runaway freight train. There isn’t time here for anything." He reached for two empty milkshake glasses to help him illustrate the problem, setting the glasses side by side on the table, their rims touching. "This is me, and this is the other guy when we get to Washington," he said. "Different ideas, different people, but we are close. We are touching. Democrat and Republican. We can do something with this."
He started to slowly pull the glasses in separate directions, ticking off reasons for the escalating divide. "Fundraising. Campaigns," he said, moving the glasses farther apart. "Votes, strategy, rushing around, lobbyists, name-calling," he continued, spreading the glasses farther, moving his daughter’s plate to clear a path for one of them. "I have my meetings and they have theirs. I run by them. They run by me. It’s all about winning, winning, winning. Winning - not fixing problems - defines all."
Now Southerland stretched his arms as far as he could, placing each glass at a distant edge of the table. Each was just an inch from falling and shattering on the ground. This was the congressional divide over food stamps and so much else. This was Washington in 2013 - one place, Southerland was beginning to realize, where legislation depended on so much more than hard work.
"So now I’m here and they’re way over there," he said, pointing to the glasses. "We can barely see each other. We can’t solve anything like this."
A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Southerland's eldest daughter as Amanda. This version has been corrected.
Rep. Steve Southerland calls his parents from the office at the family business, a funeral home. Southerland is an avid hunter who shot the deer mounted in the office wall.