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Monday, February 18, 2013

America’s Food-for-Votes Program


During his 2012 bid to become the Republican nominee for President, Newt Gingrich repeatedly called Barack Obama “the food-stamp President.” From the time Obama assumed office in January 2009 through October 2012, the number of people on food stamps spiked from 31.9 million to 47.5 million, according to the U.S. government’s own data. That is a rise of nearly 50 percent to a peak of 1 in 7 Americans and 1 in 4 children participating. The program's cost has more than doubled in four years, from $30 billion to $72 billion. So, it seems, there was plenty of bread to go with the electoral circus.
The food stamp program's new name is Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Critics claim it is economically unsustainable, widely abused, and the harbinger of a colossal welfare state. Advocates insist SNAP is the result of recession—a humanitarian necessity—and that food is a human right. But it is difficult to square food-stamp humanitarianism with other policies issuing from the White House, which add up to an attempt to make people dependent. 

Ulterior Motives?

The recession—which was largely caused and is continued by the government—itself is an inadequate explanation for the surge in food stamp recipients. The Obama administration has been recruiting people for its food stamps program with a zeal that outstrips simple humanitarian concern. In an article entitled “Obama Encouraging Americans to Get on Welfare,” Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute commented, “The Obama administration clearly doesn’t believe that enough Americans are receiving welfare.” He continued,
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius last week issued an order giving the Obama administration greater authority to waive work requirements included in the 1998 welfare reform law. This comes on top of a new ad campaign, using Spanish-language soap operas, to encourage more Latinos to sign up for food stamps. The administration even gave a special award to an Agriculture Department worker who found ways to combat the “mountain pride” discouraging Appalachian residents from taking full advantage of food stamps and other welfare programs. One message was loud and clear: More Americans should be getting welfare.
And that’s not all.
In the months prior to the 2012 presidential election, the USDA actively promoted “food stamp parties.” In an article entitled “Food Stamps: Both Obama and Republicans Are to Blame for Record Crisis,” Cato Budget Analyst Tad DeHaven quoted the toolkit guide used to promote the celebrations. “Throw a Great Party. Host social events where people mix and mingle . . . Make it fun by having activities, games, food, and entertainment, and provide information about SNAP. Putting SNAP information in a game format like BINGO, crossword puzzles, or even a ‘true/false’ quiz is fun and helps get your message across in a memorable way.” In other campaigns, large cash awards were given to those who signed up the most people. The latter fact may have encouraged bureaucrats, rather than high-ranking officials, to ramp up the program.
There are political advantages to expanding programs like SNAP.
President Obama has never hidden his goal to redistribute wealth in America. SNAP is forced redistribution on at least three levels: 
  • First, taxes from the rich and middle classes go to the poor, which causes dependency.
  • Second, crony capitalists benefit. For example, JPMorgan administers the debit cards through which food assistance is distributed. The fiscal watchdog Government Accountability Institute claims that the company's contracts in 18 of the 24 states it manages have brought in at least $560,492,596.02 since 2004.
  • Third, immense bureaucratic structures are established at the federal level. Entitlements thus lock in the allegiance and votes of both those who receive benefits and those whose livelihoods now depend upon administering the programs, which paves an easier path to election as supplicants show up to “pay” with their votes.
Runaway entitlements thus weaken the political opposition. For example, Republicans’ demand for restraint gets recast as callousness. But more importantly, entitlements weaken the free market, which is the true ideological enemy of all ambitious politicians, Democrat and Republican alike. 

Dependency by Design

In addition to this food-stamp activism, consider two policies—one actual, another proposed—that close off alternatives to going on the dole. 
The renewable fuels policies initiated under President Bush with the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 continue to expand and affect the prices of meals served in family kitchens. Under the Environmental Protection Agency's program, oil companies must dilute their gasoline with biofuel, almost all of which is ethanol derived from corn. Thus EPA policy is causing food prices to rise.
The San Francisco Chronicle recently reported, “In an average year, growers divert one-third of the nation's corn crop from food to ethanol production. Last year, the drought that affected 65% of farmland . . . reduced corn yields. Because of that, nearly half the corn crop went to ethanol production.” Farmers compete with oil companies for grain they need to feed livestock and poultry; they have pleaded with the EPA to relax oil dilution requirements so that corn can fall to its natural level. The agency refuses. Obama could lower food costs and increase availability by requesting changes in his own administration’s policies. Yet he has been silent. 
What Obama has made clear, however, is his antipathy toward private charities. In a recent article called “The End of Charity,” legal scholar Richard A. Epstein explains that Obama has sought to limit the tax deduction for charitable donations no fewer than four times. A new push is underway in the President's FY 2013 budget. It’s hard to square the humanitarian explanation for the increased SNAP enrollment with this policy. 
Indeed, Epstein asks a key question: “Why then would the government take steps to cut back on charitable giving?” According to Epstein the unsavory explanation is “both insidious and dangerous. It is to shrink the size of its main competitors in the private sector in order to increase the dependence of ordinary people on the federal government.”
Private charities that provide services more efficiently than government are a political embarrassment. They highlight government's waste, corruption, and incompetence. Thus, it is in Obama's political interest to hinder both farmers who could lower food costs and charities that could provide better social services. 

The Currency of Power

The private and public sectors are competing for the same customers. The trouble is, the currency of power is becoming the only thing that will get you anything in the United States. What’s left when that happens? Dependency in the place of liberty. Government in the place of a productive citizenry.

  • Wendy McElroy is the author of over a dozen books on individualist feminism and libertarian history. Her upcoming book, "The Satoshi Revolution," applies the concepts of classical liberalism to cryptocurrency. She has been published by such diverse venues as Penn State to Penthouse, FEE to Marie Claire.