by Diane R. Pagen, LMSW
The Congressional Food Stamp bashers are at it again. I do wish they would call each other in the morning before telling rooms full of Americans what is wrong with Food Stamp users. In June we heard a Congressman from Texas, Louie Gohmert, say that it’s obvious poor Texas kids don’t need any Food Stamps because they are too fat. Now just last week, we heard Oklahoma’s Markwayne Mullin say it’s obvious people in his state don’t need Food Stamps because he saw one on the grocery line who looked too “fit.” This is the public conversation that paves the way for the proposed plan to cut four million Americans off of Food Stamps, a one sided discussion that excludes the American poor and paints the people cut off as not really in need. Since ultimately the program will remain, Americans who read the press will assume that very poor children who need Food Stamps to eat at all will not be cut from the program. And we will continue on thinking that no child is going without food in the United States, and that will be cut off are not really poor—because they are too fat, or in the case of Oklahoma, too fit. And the fact that virtually all Food Stamp users are mothers and their children is quietly omitted, so as to push public opinion toward cutting people off Food Stamps.
We Americans like our poor people looking unquestionably poor. We want them with no cell phone, no jewelry, not even the good luck charm they bought back when things were good. We want them with no TV, no computer either, though of course then we’ll can bash them for not having the tools to look for a job. If the man Mullin saw had looked busted, emaciated and depressed (and maybe even barefoot), perhaps this would have satisfied the young Congressman.
Our aid system is built on the principles of the English Poor Laws, a 17th century system of aid so heartless and distrustful that it separated children from their parents as a condition of feeding the family, put even young children to work for their bread, and confiscated property from people who sought help if they said they could not work (which they often couldn’t right away, because they were starving). No wonder that Mullins, in order to feel assured that an American is not “cheating,” seeks to see Food Stamp users looking bad off, rather than proudly keeping it together.
Is it not enough that each recipient has to do paperwork twice a year to prove she’s got no money? That’s twice as often as the average citizen has to prove his income via the tax system. No amount of fraud checks satisfies the Food Stamp bashers, who must feel that Americans are dishonest hustlers, incapable of making good decisions.
Data from the Food Resource Action Center shows half the counties in Oklahoma are failing to deliver Food Stamp benefits to even 60% of their eligible families. In five counties, Oklahoma’s Food Stamp program fails to reach 50 percent of its eligible residents. Thousands of Americans in many states with incomes at or below 125 percent of the poverty line are going to the supermarket without the Food Stamps they qualify for. That’s what we should be talking about in Town Hall meetings, because malnourished Americans can’t be at their best for employment, for helping neighbors, for parenting or business, or anything else we need to be doing.
The accusations against recipients of Food Stamps are not harmless. This kind of talk stokes a community’s animosity toward people who turn to public aid. Children who were in that town hall may have winced in shame as their Congressman talked about their parents, who they have seen pay for groceries with “that card.” Mullin doesn’t realize the harmful effects of his words. If a kid gets beat up in the schoolyard this September because his classmates saw his mom using Food Stamps, I wonder if Mullin will see that he may be partly at fault.
Fit or fat, no matter: this absurd talk also diverts attention from the critical failing of Food Stamps, which is that it is a great program that is not reaching all of the families who are poor enough to be eligible. This is a major societal problem that can only be corrected by making it easier to get enrolled in Food Stamps and harder to get kicked off. That problem will only be fixed by eliminating unnecessary paperwork. In 2011, California was in violation of federal law, with its backlogs of unprocessed applications. Truly poor families were going without. It reduced its fraud checks by half (from four checks a year to only two) and has been able to catch up, as well as reduce its Food Stamp program’s operational costs. Every Congressmember should be listening carefully to that fact, instead of to the mean and unproductive statements of Mullin and others against Food Stamp users and poor constituents generally.