Swift and Food Stamp Cuts

Gulliver

Who knew that Jonathan Swift would have something to say about food stamps? At times, he even sounds vaguely Republican, although not for long.

First of all, let’s take a look at current GOP attempts to slash food stamp programs. As columnist Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post notes, 

Democrats look at the food-stamp program and see an essential piece of a fraying safety net. Republicans see entitlement spending gone wild. This fierce debate is to be joined soon in the House, where Republicans plan to take up a mean-spirited measure that would cut spending on the program by a whopping $40 billion over the next decade — twice the original House proposal and 10 times the trims envisioned by the Senate.

Although Marcus is a centrist Democrat in that she is more concerned about balanced budgets than full employment  (in contrast to, say, Paul Krugman), she nevertheless believes that food stamps are vital. In response to complaints that food stamp costs have been rising, here is her argument:

But those figures demonstrate a program working as intended in an economic downturn. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the weak economy was responsible for 65percent of the cost growth between 2007 and 2011; 20percent was because of a stimulus-funded boost in benefits that is set to expire in November. The remainder reflected factors such as higher food prices and lower income among beneficiaries.

Indeed, the CBO projects that, as the economy recovers and the labor market slowly follows, enrollment and costs will drop to 34million recipients and $73billion by 2023. Unlike federal health-care programs, under the twin pressures of an aging population and costs rising faster than inflation, food stamps are not a long-term driver of the budget deficit.

A few other tidbits: Benefits are modest, averaging $1.40 per meal. Three-fourths of households receiving benefits include a child, a person age 60 or older or someone who is disabled. The average household receiving benefits in 2010 had annual income of $8,800.

Now to Swift. Like many Republicans, he thinks that the poor regularly abuse charity. Indeed, he sometimes sounds like those Republicans (including Mitt Romney) who argue that the poor should pay income taxes, even if their income is very low, to insure that they have “some skin in the game.” Here he is describing Lilliput’s utopian past:

The meaner families who have children at these [state] nurseries, are obliged, besides their annual pension, which is as low as possible, to return to the steward of the nursery a small monthly share of their gettings, to be a portion for the child; and therefore all parents are limited in their expenses by the law.  For the Lilliputians think nothing can be more unjust, than for people, in subservience to their own appetites, to bring children into the world, and leave the burthen of supporting them on the public. 

Actually, liberals would be more than pleased to have state-sponsored daycare for all children and are much more likely these days to insist on responsible behavior from those who receive government benefits. (Listen to Clinton and Obama on the subject.) But it’s traditionally a conservative position to complain about how the sexual appetites of irresponsible poor people are bleeding dry the public purse.

If the Tory Swift leans right on this issue, however, I can easily imagine what he would say about the GOP House when it voted for increased crop subsidies last May while cutting billions in food stamp aid, especially Tennessee Republican Stephen Fincher. Here’s the New York Times reporting on Rep. Fincher: 

Using Agriculture Department data, researchers at the Environmental Working Group found that Representative Stephen Fincher, a Republican and a farmer from Frog Jump, Tenn., collected nearly $3.5 million in subsidies from 1999 to 2012. . .

During debate on the farm bill in the House Agriculture Committee last week, Mr. Fincher was one of the biggest proponents of $20 billion in cuts to food stamps in the legislation. At times he quoted passages from the Bible in defending the cuts.

“We have to remember there is not a big printing press in Washington that continually prints money over and over,” Mr. Fincher said during the debate. “This is other people’s money that Washington is appropriating and spending.”

Of course, we know from “A Modest Proposal,” what Swift thinks of rich people who feel that they have a God-given right to hoard wealth and to line their pockets at the expense of the poor (for instance, landlords who “as they have already devoured most of the Parents, seem to have the best Title to the Children”). Here’s the Gulliver in Book IV describing a British politician to his Houyhnhnm master.

 I told him, that a first or chief minister of state, who was the person I intended to describe, was the creature wholly exempt from joy and grief, love and hatred, pity and anger; at least, makes use of no other passions, but a violent desire of wealth, power, and titles; that he applies his words to all uses, except to the indication of his mind; that he never tells a truth but with an intent that you should take it for a lie; nor a lie, but with a design that you should take it for a truth…

And here is Gulliver’s master reporting on Yahoo behavior he has observed:

That in some fields of his country there are certain shining stones of several colors, whereof the Yahoos are violently fond: and when part of these stones is fixed in the earth, as it sometimes happens, they will dig with their claws for whole days to get them out; then carry them away, and hide them by heaps in their kennels; but still looking round with great caution, for fear their comrades should find out their treasure.”  My master said, “he could never discover the reason of this unnatural appetite, or how these stones could be of any use to a Yahoo; but now he believed it might proceed from the same principle of avarice which I had ascribed to mankind. 

Jonathan, America needs you.

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