By Liz Brazile
The Trump administration proposed Monday to replace the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) debit cards and coupons with boxes of pre-selected nonperishables as part of a $4.4 trillion budget plan.
The specifics of how this change would be implemented are vague, but here’s what’s been pitched thus far: The food packages, dubbed “America’s Harvest Box” by Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, would hypothetically consist of items like shelf-stable milk, cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans, canned meat, and canned fruits and vegetables. Missing from this Great Depression era menu are fresh produce options and virtually anything facilitating a balanced, pleasant diet. But aside from the questionable contents of the suggested packages, the very act of denying people the autonomy to choose what they eat itself would be a gross breach of human dignity.
Just last month, US Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue was reported by Bloomberg as having said it was in SNAP—formerly called “food stamps”—recipients’ best interest to “move into an independent lifestyle.” This assertion isn’t particularly earth-shattering considering how benefits aren’t guaranteed to last forever and most recipients want to be independent. However, Perdue’s statement philosophically contradicts the government’s new authoritarian bid to decide what SNAP participants will eat. Trying to dictate folks’ diet is antithetical to encouraging them to be independent.
What’s even more contradictory, though, is that it appears that the Trump administration seeks to emulate communist nations, despite the right’s collective aversion to both real and imagined socialism. During Obama’s presidency, Republicans dragged Michelle Obama for her “Let’s Move!” campaign to provide healthier food options for school kids. She and her husband were repeatedly accused of attempting to implement socialist policy, yet here we are with the GOP proposing a rather communistic agenda. Just last September, Trump had strong words for communists at the United Nations General Assembly:
“From the Soviet Union to Cuba to Venezuela, wherever true socialism or communism has been adopted, it has delivered anguish and devastation and failure. Those who preach the tenets of these discredited ideologies only contribute to the continued suffering of the people who live under these cruel systems.”
While Trump’s habitual cognitive dissonance has all but lost its shock value, this instance is one for the books.
Speaking of books, in his 2011 title “Time to Get Tough”, Trump alleges that there is a “food stamp crime wave” at play and that Obama’s policy is too lenient on program recipients. It’s not that abuse of the SNAP program doesn’t occur—it definitely does. But not nearly as much as Republicans claim it happens. The narratives of widespread SNAP abuse are contrived and exist for the sake of political convenience. Beneficiaries of SNAP must go through a closely monitored application and screening process and are required to reapply for SNAP on a continual basis.
Between 2009 and 2011, the trafficking rate for SNAP did increase from 1 percent–where it stood between 2006 and 2008–to 1.3 percent, according to a USDA report. Per this same report:
“A substantial portion of this increase is due to the growth in the program, where redemptions totaled $36 billion in 2008 (the last year of the previous study period), then increased to $55 billion in 2009 (the first year of present study period) and eventually to $73 billion in 2011.”
Point three percent is hardly enough to qualify as a “wave”, especially considering the current trafficking rate of SNAP benefits is down more than half of what it was in 2000. It’s also worth noting that enrollment in the program spiked amid the Great Recession in 2008 but has steadily declined since 2013: the same year participation hit an all-time high of 47.6 million people.
As of 2016, nearly two-thirds of SNAP participants are children, the elderly, and disabled individuals—in other words, people for whom “just getting a job” or deliberately “abusing the system” isn’t realistic. But thanks to the Reagan era “welfare queen” narrative and the subsequent mischaracterization of food stamp recipients, government assistance has become a racially coded political issue, with unwed black mothers serving as the chief scapegoat.
American welfare programs were initially introduced under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal to help poor whites get on their feet in the wake of the Great Depression. But by the late 1970s, welfare programs were becoming increasingly associated with poor communities of color—particularly urban black neighborhoods. Politicians have exploited the empathy gap that exists in regard to white perceptions of black communities, and particularly the poor black woman. The welfare queen caricature has effectively shaped government assistance policy since the 1980s.
But despite notions that Black people benefit the most from government assistance programs, 32 percent of adult Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) recipients are white, compared to 31 percent being black, according to the Administration for Children and Families. The same report also shows that white people make up the highest percentage of participants in TANF of all ethnic groups. As for SNAP recipients, non-Hispanic whites make up 14 percent more of the households participating than non-Hispanic black households.
Indeed, the higher percentage of white people receiving SNAP benefits is a reflection of the fact that there are more white people in America than people of other ethnicities. But that is neither here nor there, bearing in mind that the rhetoric that blames black people for federal spending on welfare programs doesn’t take total population and corresponding rates of participation into consideration. The sheer breakdown of participant numbers by ethnicity speaks for itself and goes to show how much of a sham the welfare queen narrative is. The Trump administration’s proposed policy change would impact low-income white people, yet, cognitive dissonance has led people to believe that only poor folks of color would be affected.
The widespread disdain for food stamp recipients is the culmination of both racism and classism, as intersecting instruments of oppression. Participants are often portrayed as lazy, good-for-nothing leeches who exist solely to undermine the efforts of hard-working Americans. This deep-seated hate for public aid recipients is so embedded in the political psyche of America that many don’t see an issue with the government dictating what low-income people get to eat. We’ve normalized them being undeserving of life’s ostensibly small pleasures, such as simply enjoying a good meal.
Beyond people simply having a right to choose the foods they like to eat, people have medical conditions and allergies that govern what foods they can eat. How would people with peanut and lactose allergies fare with America’s Harvest Box? And what about people with celiac disease or diabetes? We can see examples of the devastating impact government issued food can have on people by examining health outcomes in Native American communities.
Native American adults have the highest rate of diabetes out of all ethnic groups, according to the CDC. This high rate is attributed to high blood sugar, high blood pressure, and a lack of access to healthcare. The Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) was implemented in 1973 and is responsible for supplying much of the food available on federal reservations–many of which are food deserts, with few grocery and convenience stores. The shelves of these stores are overwhelmingly stocked with nutritionally empty foods and very few fresh produce options.
A lack of nutritionally balanced options on reservations has led to a high rate of obesity, and inevitably, the high rate of diabetes found in Native American communities. The consequences are so dire that diabetes—which virtually didn’t exist in the Native American population until the mid-twentieth century—has become a genetic predisposition for many. Similar circumstances—food deserts and an inability to access resources outside of one’s neighborhood—have also left poor black people with terrible health outcomes and a genetic susceptibility to several chronic diseases.
The suggested changes to the SNAP program stand to not only infringe upon basic civil liberties, but would also exacerbate already failing health outcomes in vulnerable communities. Poor people are not less deserving of having autonomy and healthy bodies simply because they lack financial resources. And folks would do well to remember that many of us are just an unforeseen accident or tragedy away from finding ourselves in an economic predicament of our own.