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Food Stamp Resentment Feeds Conservative Agenda

For the past half century, nutrition assistance and farm subsidies have been linked legislatively in farm bills passed by an alliance of rural and urban lawmakers. That arrangement for enacting the bills every five years has broken lately with the rise of tea party Republicans unwilling to play along with the previously established protocol.

Nutrition assistance accounts for most of the bill's near $1 trillion cost over 10 years.  As the bad economy has pushed Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) enrollment above 47 million Americans, the program's annual cost have more than doubled to $80 billion. Republicans want to shrink those numbers, but they missed their best chance in June, when a trillion-dollar farm bill failed in the House of Representatives, after the GOP sought deeper cuts than Democrats would accept.

The focus on SNAP has again brought up a familiar story which goes back at least 20 years. In 1993, the Columbus Dispatch ran a letter to the editor lamenting a food stamp recipient buying "two bottles of wine, steak and a large bag of king crab legs.''  Anecdotally, we’ve all heard the stories about people standing in line behind the person who is buying the tenderloin, the porterhouse or the crab and they’re using their Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card to pay for it, while hard working folk who are just getting by, are buying ground beef.

While political hype will have us believe that the system is rife with free riders, SNAP fraud has declined dramatically. According to the department's latest data, the trafficking rate is down from 4 cents per dollar of benefits in 1993 to 1 cent from 2006 to 2008.

Buying fancy stuff with food stamps isn't fraud -- it's just something that seems unfair to people who think a government safety net should afford poor people modest food only. More broadly, the idea is that the poor should feel poor at all times until they're not poor anymore.

Nutrition assistance is a federal program administered by states at the ground level. State and federal lawmakers have long sought new restrictions on what nutrition assistance can buy.  But this is not a simple problem to be fixed.

Federal law says food stamps can't be used to buy booze, cigarettes, vitamins, or household supplies. But they can buy almost anything else at a supermarket, so long as it isn't served hot for immediate consumption. So what do people buy with SNAP?

A government survey from the late-'90s found that meats accounted for 34.9 percent of food stamp purchases, grains 19.7 percent, fruits and veggies 19.6 percent, and dairy products 12.5 percent. Soft drinks made up 5.6 percent and sweets 2.5 percent.

If the government decides to restrict purchases to "wholesome" food, it won't be easy.

According to a Food Research and Action Center January report "No clear standards exist for defining individual foods as 'healthy' or 'unhealthy,' and federal dietary guidance focuses on an overall dietary pattern -- that is, a total diet approach -- that promotes moderation and consumption of a variety of foods without singling out individual foods as 'good' or 'bad.'" "Consider the following examples: some candy bars have fewer calories from fat than a serving of cheddar cheese, and soft drinks have less fat and sodium per serving than some granola bars," the report continued. "If the focus for restrictions was foods high in fat and sodium, would candy

In June, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg led a coalition of big-city mayors asking Congress to restrict food stamps from paying for soda in the name of fighting obesity.

While 30 percent of SNAP recipients earn money by working, 91 percent have annual incomes are at or below the poverty line. Most recipients are children, elderly or disabled. Many food stamp recipients can account abuse they have received in the checkout line regarding their purchase choices. For the recipients, many of whom are facing tremendous challenges, may be disabled or suffering illness they too can recount checkout line stories.  For example Patrick McCallister of Stuart, FL said that in 2003 and 2004, he had fallen on hard times after a divorce and used nutrition assistance to feed his three kids. "Especially because my family was on food stamps, I felt like that was a taxpayer-supported program aimed at helping my children do as well as they could in life," McCallister said. "I focused on buying fresh fruits, vegetables, whole-grain bread." But he faced criticism for “the quality” of food he was purchasing.

From infant care and early education to Social Security and Medicare, the dominant economic ideology is demanding more lifelong sacrifices from the vulnerable to appease those more well off.  Middle-class wages are stagnant. Unemployment is stalled at record levels. College education is leading to debt servitude and job insecurity. Poverty is soaring and people are going hungry.  The more these injustices are allowed to persist, the harder it will be to end them.

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