On January 29, by a 251–166 margin, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to cut food stamp funding by $8.6 billion over a 10-year period. 89 Democrats joined 162 Republicans to bring about this result.
“They are gutting a program to provide food for hungry people to pay for corporate welfare,” said Joel Berg, executive director of the New York Coalition Against Hunger.
Anti-hunger advocates like Berg say crop insurance expansion would come at the expense of millions of people who depend on food stamps.
“This vote is a tragic, heartless and economically counterproductive departure from America‘s bipartisan history of fighting hunger,” Berg said. “Members of Congress who voted for this should be ashamed.”
The $8.6 billion cut would reduce benefits by about $90 a month for 850,000 households. According to Feeding America, a coalition of food banks across the country, the change would result in 34 lost meals per month for the affected families.
“My line in the sand has always been, I’m not going to vote for a farm bill that makes hunger worse in America,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D., Mass.), who indeed voted against the measure.
The bill now goes to the Senate, which is scheduled to take it up next week. Majority leader and top Senate Democrat Harry Reid has praised the House vote. [Note: The Senate on June 10, 2013 voted to cut food stamp spending by $4.1 billion over ten years so this latest version is more than double that amount!]
“Nearly 72 percent of SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which includes food stamps] participants are in families with children; more than one-quarter of participants are in households with seniors or people with disabilities,” according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Bipartisan Congress Allows Benefits to Long-Term Unemployed to Lapse
Simultaneously with the drive to cut food stamps, Congress voted to approve a budget that excluded extension of unemployment insurance for 1.3 million jobless and their families. This places in jeoparty an additional 3.6 million workers who face losing their unemployment benefits in the coming months.
While bills have been introduced in both chambers of Congress to restore the unemployed benefits, they face an uncertain future. Many Republicans now claim that if the benefits are severed, jobless workers will have a greater incentive to find a job. This despite the indisputable fact that for every job that comes open, three workers apply.
There is a clear-cut interconnection between the food stamp and unemployment compensation issues. The more workers lose their compensation, the more they will seek food stamps, which will overwhelm food banks even more than is the case now. These food banks already face crises in having sufficient food to feed the hungry.
Whatever happened to the so-called “war on poverty” and the rhetoric about looking out for the poor?
So Who Is To Blame?
We start with Congress itself. It was widely expected that the Republican-dominated House of Representatives would throw every roadblock in the books to curb unemployment compensation, while at the same time cutting food stamps to the bone. But what about the Democratic-dominated Senate, which many looked to for protection of workers’ rights and benefits?
Doesn’t this double-barreled attack against the working class by Democratic Party politicians (with some exceptions) raise fundamental questions as to which side these people are on? After all, they agreed previously, with only one dissenting vote in the Senate, to cut food stamp funding by $4.1 billion. And they unanimously approved the Ryan-Murray budget deal excluding unemployment benefits, leaving it to the tender mercy of the Republicans to restore the benefits in separate legislation.
Welcome to the age of austerity. And welcome to the new normal. In the past, unemployment insurance was routinely extended with no demand for “offsets,” which is the Republicans’ battle cry today.
It took former Tennessee member of the U.S. House of Representative Harold Ford, Jr. to state the obvious truth: The Democrats are responsible for what happened because they needlessly opened the door widely for Republican obstructionism when the Democrats failed to insist that extension of jobless compensation be included in the budget deal. The Republicans would have been forced to go along with the inclusion because they certainly could not afford to shut down the government again, justifying it on the ground that it was the Democrats’ fault for refusing to drop a critically needed benefit for the long-term unemployed.
On July 11, 2013 and again on September 19, 2013, the AFL-CIO issued statements blasting the Republicans for their actions on cutting food-stamp funding. And on December 11, 2013, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka issued this statement on the budget deal:
“It is shocking that Republicans have refused to include an extension of unemployment benefits in today’s budget agreement. At the end of December, federal unemployment benefits will expire for 1.3 million jobless workers. Lawmakers must not desert these workers by going home for their own holidays without extending the federal unemployment benefits program.”
Note that in each of these cases all the blame for what has happened is placed at the Republicans’ door with nothing said about the Democrats’ complicity. And so far as we can tell, labor leaders have failed to condemn the latest House cut in food stamp funding.
That gets to the heart of the problem: Our labor leaders frequently subordinate working class needs to the program of the Democratic Party. What is needed instead is to build a labor-community movement that is independent of both major political parties and has an uncompromising commitment to fight for the needs of the working class majority. Such a movement must be accountable to our members and community allies and not be subservient to any political party.
And it’s high time to stop covering for the Democratic Party. Our members and allies need to know that the Democratic-controlled Senate is a “millionaires club” with more than half of its members millionaires or multimillionaires and the rest not far behind. They are detached from the rest of us and clearly do not represent our interests.
As for the president, he has said that he will veto the farm bill if the cuts to food stamps are too extreme. All indications are that the measure passed by the House with its $8.6 in cuts will pass muster with him. He certainly did not say anything to the contrary in his state of the union address.
Still Time to Avert Cuts to Food Stamps
There is still time to defeat the bipartisan drive to cut food stamps, but it will take mobilization on a scale we have not experienced before. We urge the AFL-CIO, together with Change to Win, the National Education Association and our community partners and supporters to join together on an emergency basis to demand “No cuts to food stamps — restore and extend benefits to the long-term unemployed!”
A lot is at stake here for the low and medium-income workers who are immediately affected by this twin crisis and for the working class as a whole. Passivity and inaction are sure prescriptions for the worse austerity attacks that lie ahead. Action is needed now to stop that in its tracks!