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 conflicts with the government’s authoritarian bid to decide what SNAP participants will eat. You can’t simultaneously encourage independence and try to control folks’ diet.
What’s even more contradictory is it appears as though the Trump administration seeks to emulate communist nations, despite Conservatives’ 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 an unambiguously socialist 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 to 1.3 percent since a 2006-2008 study, according to a USDA report (https://fns-prod.azureedge.net/sites/default/files/Trafficking2009_Summary.pdf). 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, when 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, folks for whom “just getting a job” or “playing 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 deliberately 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 affectively shaped government assistance policy since the 1980s.
But despite notions that Black people benefit the most from welfare 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. This report also shows that whites made up the highest percentage of participants of all ethnic groups. As for SNAP recipients, non-Hispanic whites make up 38.9 percent of households participating compared to 24.9 percent non-Hispanic black households. Once again, we see white people making up the biggest ethnic percentage of a government assistance program.
Before anyone deflects by saying that the higher percentage of whites reflects the larger population of White people in America, stop right there. The warped rhetoric that blames black people for federal spending on welfare programs doesn’t take total population and corresponding rates of participation into consideration, so I won’t either. The sheer breakdown of participant numbers by ethnicity should tell you everything you need to know about why the welfare queen narrative is a sham. It’s clear as day that this policy change would impact low-income white people. Yet, that pesky cognitive dissonance has led people to believe that only poor folks of color would be affected.
The widespread disdain for food stamp recipients is a mixture of equal parts racism and classism. Participants are often portrayed as lazy, good-for-nothing leeches who 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. Our contempt for poor people is so profound that we’ve normalized them being undeserving of small pleasures, like 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 the devastating impact government issued food can have on a community by examining the health outcomes of Native Americans.
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 sweets 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 access to resources outside of one’s neighborhood—have also left poor black people with terrible health outcomes and genetic susceptibility to several chronic diseases.
The suggested changes to the SNAP program stand to not only infringe upon basic human rights, but also exacerbate already failing health outcomes in vulnerable communities. I implore everyone who reads this to call or write to Congress to help stop this potential catastrophe before it really gains traction. For your convenience, you can text the word “resist” to 504-09 and the nonprofit Resistbot will help you draft and send letters to your elected officials.