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Sunday, July 28, 2013

Congressional Cuts to Food Stamps: Violating a Human Right?

During the debate in the U.S. House of Representatives in June 2013 on a proposed $20.5 billion in cuts over 10 years to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), otherwise known as the food stamps program, proponents of the cuts denied that they would make it more difficult for the poor to feed themselves. Rep. Rick Crawford claimed that the cuts would be “eliminating abuse.”[1] For example, some drug addicts sell their “food stamps” for something like half value and use the cash to buy drugs. The addicts manage to get their food at pantries and soup kitchens. While such fraud exists, the proposed cuts would have hit bone. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, nearly 2 million people would lose SNAP eligibility were the cuts to become law.[2] After the debate, “Tea Party” Republicans wanting even more cut combined with Democrats against any cuts defeated the proposal.


Three months later, the U.S. House voted 217 to 210 to cut food stamps by $40 billion.  Obama had already promised a veto, which the tally could not overcome. Even so, that no vote had been taken to suspend or end foreign aid to Egypt on account of the military coup or to cut corporate welfare is telling in what this says about priorities. Even as some House supporters of the bill insisted that the innocuous decrease in federal funding merely reflects increased enforcement of existing income limits, still other House supporters admitted that the cuts are oriented to getting as many able-bodied (i.e., non-disability) recipients as possible to get a job.

"If you're a healthy adult and don't have someone relying on you to care for them, you ought to earn the benefits you receive," said Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.). "Look for work. Start job training to improve your skills or do community service. But you can no longer sit on your couch or ride a surfboard like Jason in California and expect the federal taxpayer to feed you."[3]

That is to say, rather than being a right, sustenance ought to be contingent on work. To the extent that the bill reflects this aim, more was involved in the cuts than merely strengthening enforcement of existing caps. In fact, the proposed decrease in funding could even take a pound of flesh out of the human right to sustenance in a society of interdependence.

I suspect that part of the argument on behalf of earning as a prerequisite reflects a failure to realize that the increased number of food recipients since 2007 was in large measure due to the post-financial-crisis economic downturn.

In 2012, for example, the SNAP program spent around $80 billion on about 47 million Americans—one in seven.[4] According to the Congressional Budget Office, the increased cost and usage of the program over the previous few years was due to the recession following the financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent nearly-jobless recovery.[5] Nevertheless, the ballooning cost made the program vulnerable politically to being “downsized.” Hence the debate on the U.S. House floor in June 2013 and the claim on the Hill that too many Americans had become dependent on the federal government for food. Meanwhile, people on food stamps were wondering how they were supposed to get off the aid when “there are no jobs.”[6]

A similar catch-22 or double-bind would also apply to the proposal by Rep. Steve Southerland “that would allow—but not require—individual states to test work requirements.”[7] The 1996 welfare law had included work requirements for food-stamp recipients, though most states would be granted waivers by the Obama administration. Getting recipients to attend mandatory weekly “check-in” meetings and fill out weekly job search forms, let alone actually find a job, turned out to be a lesson in futility for state employees. Members of Congress and the Clinton administration had put the front-line employees at the local level in an impossible position of fitting a federal uniform requirement with the actual conditions of the recipients. In regard to Southerland’s proposal in 2013, while it would accommodate the different conditions of the states and respect their portion of sovereignty, a work requirement would not fit with the children, elderly and disabled, who make up a significant number of the recipients. Again, it would seem that members of Congress are out of touch, with ordinary people potentially at risk of having to pay the price.

Rather than expecting an answer from reason to unravel the "earnings/no jobs" double-bind, we need to look at the passions whose role is hinted at by the existence of the logical contradiction itself.

I contend that the earnings-rationale is in part actually exaggerated anger at real abuses. That is, the work ethic is in part a front here for an instinct to retaliate. Plato would point out at this point that a person talking reason to one's own undisciplined passion is necessary to render such a psyche just (i.e., passions and courage ruled by reason). Moreover, a polis (i.e., society) is just if and only if it is ruled by reason rather than passions such as resentment.

As is often the case with vengeance, collateral damage unforeseen by the hypertrophic passion would result. The vote had the potential of triggering a wake-up call of sorts concerning the realization that what happens in Congress can really hit home on Main Street. Sadly, the most vulnerable can indeed fall through the cracks, with the resentment rejoicing as the human right takes a hit.

Even reducing the funding of the SNAP program by a certain percent can set in motion consequences unknown to members of Congress. For example, well into a month in which the state had halved recipient food benefits, I went to a food pantry. The place was inundated with people who had run out of food funds unexpectedly early. SNAP recipients who had never been to the pantry had to wait two hours just to be registered, after which they were told to go to the end of the “regular” line.  The pantry ran out of food, rationing portions to most of the first-times and turning away still others. Recipients I spoke with scoffed at the notion that they were enjoying “being dependent,” and, moreover, had much choice in the matter, given the lack of jobs. As for the pantry’s volunteers, they admitted that their procedure for the first-timers was unfair; however, this did not keep the volunteers from using the occasion nevertheless to spread their Christian beliefs to the frustrated first-timers standing in their second line. Were Congress to reduce funding to the states for the SNAP program, it would not take much for the situation on the ground to get out of hand. From my observations, food pantries should not be relied on to fill up the slack.

Fundamentally, because food is a daily requirement for human beings, a daily supply of food is a human right. To make fulfilling that need contingent at all does not match the lack of contingency in the daily need. Subjecting it to the politics in Congress or a work requirement essentially holds the SNAP recipients hostage. Even just referring to food as nutrition is problematic, as the latter is not strictly speaking as much of a need as food itself. Eating more nutritious food is a worthy goal, whereas eating food is a daily requirement. Distinguishing, or bracketing, those things that are necessary for daily sustenance from all other budget items can thus be justified on the basis of human physiology—and thus human rights.

In dealing with something as necessary and individual as food consumption, small changes in a federal law can have huge, unexpected consequences as front-line state employees translate the changes as they affect particular lives. For this reason, Rep. Ryan’s proposal to move the SNAP program to the states in a block grant makes sense.[8] Besides state legislators being closer to the local contexts, a fixed block grant is more in line than Congressional programs with the dual-sovereignty feature of modern federalism. To be sure, the state governments would have the sole responsibility to see to it that the most vulnerable are not inadvertently blown over by violent political winds making even minor state-wide changes to the programs. As a rule of thumb, representatives in Congress could do much worse than treat food as unconditional in terms of human consumption. Hence, if a person cannot secure enough food on his or her own, the role of government would be to make food-sustenance as close to unconditional in practice as possible.


To venture deeper, down to a foundation for the right, See:
"Food as a Human Right: A Basis in Rousseau"



1. Ned Resnikoff, “House Debates $20.5 Billion Cuts to Food Stamps,” MSNBC, June 18, 2013.
2. Dottie Rosenbaum and Stacy Dean, “House Agricultural Committee Farm Bill Would Cut Nearly 2 Million People Off SNAP,” The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, May 16, 2013. “By eliminating the categorical eligibility state option, which over 40 states have adopted, the bill would cut nearly 2 million low-income people off SNAP.”
3. Arthur Delaney and Michael McAuliff, "House Votes to Cut Food Stamps by $40 Billion," The Huffington Post, September 19, 2013.
4. Associated Press, “House GOP Considers Food Stamp Work Requirements, Cutting Spending for Feeding Program,” The Washington Post, July 24, 2013.
5. Dottie Rosenbaum and Stacy Dean, “House Agricultural Committee Farm Bill Would Cut Nearly 2 Million People Off SNAP,” The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, May 16, 2013. “By eliminating the categorical eligibility state option, which over 40 states have adopted, the bill would cut nearly 2 million low-income people off SNAP.”
6.  I heard this complaint from several people when I visited a food pantry run by a non-profit organization.
7. Associated Press, “House GOP Considers Food Stamp Work Requirements, Cutting Spending for Feeding Program,” The Washington Post, July 24, 2013.
8. Associated Press, “House GOP Considers Food Stamp Work Requirements, Cutting Spending for Feeding Program,” The Washington Post, July 24, 2013.