The Trump administration has learned that some food stamp recipients may have a few hundred dollars in the bank, and the administration is on it. So it is responding to this emergency by taking steps that could take food stamps away from 3.1 million Americans who rely on them to eat.
This is a story about government and budgets and bureaucracy, but it’s also a story about philosophy. One way to think about it is to ask this question: Which makes you angrier, a child going hungry, or someone getting a government benefit who might be able to do without it?
If you’re a Republican, the answer is almost certainly the latter. In fact, you’d probably be happy to take benefits away from a hundred or a thousand people who need them — or maybe even 3.1 million — if it meant that just one person gaming the system could be stopped.
That’s not to say that Republicans actually want kids to go hungry any more than Democrats want people to game the system and get benefits they don’t need. But there’s a basic difference in what they see as an urgent problem and what they’re willing to live with to solve that problem.
The administration’s proposed rule change is the latest in a series of attacks on the food stamp program, which have included trying to impose stricter work requirements on beneficiaries and restricting eligibility. Sometimes that attack is straightforward, just trying to cut the program. But at other times it employs a favorite Republican tactic: weaponizing bureaucracy against poor people.
That’s what’s happening here. As it stands now, in 43 states if you’re poor enough to be eligible and enroll in other anti-poverty programs, you can be automatically enrolled in food stamps, too. So what the administration wants to do is forbid states from doing that automatic enrollment so people would have to go through a separate application process for food stamps, including asset tests to make sure they don’t own their home or have a bank account with enough money in it to afford a car repair.
In addition — and this is a particularly cruel side effect — by gutting this “broad-based categorical eligibility,” it will also make it harder for states to help people avoid what’s known as the “benefit cliff,” where you can get a small raise at work and suddenly lose all your food stamp benefits, leaving you worse off.
The purpose is clear: If you make people navigate a whole separate bureaucratic process, many of them won’t bother, won’t understand they’re eligible or will make mistakes in the process that get their applications rejected. And presto, you’ve denied benefits to 3 million people.
We’ve seen what this technique produces in places like Arkansas, where the state added work requirements to Medicaid that amounted to little more than a convoluted bureaucratic maze people have to navigate to keep their health insurance. Eighteen thousand Arkansans have lost their coverage as a result.
But Republicans are deeply, deeply concerned that there might be a national epidemic of people gaming the food stamp system. So are there millions of rich folks living in mansions who nonetheless have meager incomes and are therefore able to get the lavish average benefit of $126 per month per person, or $1.40 per meal?
Well, no. If you ask Republicans, they’ll point to … one guy. His name is Rob Undersander, and he wrote an op-ed a few years ago telling how he was able to apply for and receive food stamps despite having savings and property because he’s a retiree with a low income.
Republicans talk about him all the time. Here he is on Fox News. Here he is on the Fox Business channel. Here he is in a video produced for a conservative think tank. Here are multiple Republicans talking about him at a congressional hearing.
How big a problem are millionaire food stamp recipients? Republicans don’t particularly care. The point for them is that one is too many. If there is even a tiny number, it’s so deeply offensive to their sense of justice that it’s worth kicking millions of people off food stamps.
That, to them, is not a moral outrage. After all, it isn’t as though we’re talking about a real injustice, like Donald Trump Jr. having to pay taxes on his inheritance. They’re just poor people. A little hunger will do them good.