Food Stamps And The Brezhnev Doctrine

Many readers may not be old enough to personally remember Leonid Brezhnev, the block-headed super-thug who was dictator of the Soviet Union during its long period of stagnation and decline from 1964 to 1982.   Here is a picture:

When Brezhnev is remembered at all, it is for the so-called Brezhnev Doctrine, by which he asserted that any country once turned Communist must never be allowed to go back to capitalism.  He may have been dumb, but he had sufficient instincts to sense that once any part of the empire was lost it could start a cascade and the whole house of cards could collapse very quickly.  In the end, that's exactly what happened.

A very similar but so far nameless doctrine applies to the world of government programs, where the principle is that no program must ever suffer an actual spending cut.  Without doubt the defenders of all government spending are motivated by the same instinct that motivated Brezhnev -- once any cut is made and seems successful, the house of cards is in real trouble.  And thus we see seemingly insignificant and clearly necessary cuts subject to hysterical defense down to the very last dollar. 

This phenomenon is currently playing out in regard to the food stamp program, otherwise known by the official acronym of SNAP.   Prior to the Obama years, food stamp spending tended to go up in recessions and down in recoveries.  But during the five years of the Obama "recovery," food stamp spending has somehow exploded from about $40 billion to about $80 billion per year, with the number of recipients nearly doubling to about 48 million.  Causes of the explosion include the government's aggressive promotion of food stamp dependency, along with lifting of prior restrictions and limits on eligibility.  I have previously covered this issue here.

Now enter the congressional Republicans with a budget proposal to bring about a small reduction in food stamp spending.  As reported at The Hill, the House last week passed a Republican proposal to "cut food stamps by $39 billion."  Of course that's $39 billion over  ten years, less than $4 billion per year.  So we're talking about getting back maybe a tenth of the explosion of the last five years, going from $80 billion per year back to maybe $76 billion.  This is supposedly to be accomplished by re-imposing some of the restrictions previously in place.  For example, the Wall Street Journal reports on September 21 that the 2009 Obama "stimulus" eliminated a 20 hour per week work requirement, and that Obama also eliminated a three month time limit for employable and able-bodied adults, leading the number of employable adults on food stamps to grow by 164% from 2007 to 2011; those restrictions would now be at least partially reinstated.  Nobody is even talking about going after some of the even more outrageous aspects of the program, such as that home equity in unlimited amount and retirement savings accounts in unlimited amount do not count toward food stamp eligibility.  After all, we wouldn't want to restrict our entitlements to just non-millionaires. 

Anyway, cue the hysterical forces seeking to prevent even one dollar of federal spending from ever being cut.  NPR refers to the approximately 5% cut as a "slash"; the Atlantic Wire calls the proposed cuts "massive"; Think Progress says the bill will affect "millions of the most vulnerable people in the country."   From among many crazed reactions, consider this one from one Albor Ruiz in the New York Daily News on September 22:

The bill will leave nearly 4 million Americans hungry, and 210,000 children without school lunches. Apparently, the GOP leaders believe that’s not their problem.  “We’re looking at a hunger crisis unlike any we’ve seen in Food Bank’s 30-year history,” said Margarette Purvis, president and CEO of Food Bank For New York City.  The sheer meanness of the Republicans’ action becomes clear once you know that, nationally, nearly 48 million people — 1.8 million in New York — rely on SNAP. Over 92% of them are children, the elderly, disabled or working families below the poverty line.  Coming at a time when one in five children (16 million) suffer hunger, a record-high, the bill would deprive millions of Americans from a proven lifeline to keeping food on the table.  “I find that idea repugnant and repulsive,” said an irate Rep. José Serrano (D-Bronx), who added that the cuts represented “one of the cruelest visions of government that we have seen in generations.”  Repugnant, repulsive and needlessly cruel, these cuts would be disastrous for New York City.

It's like there's no end to the invective:  "devastating," "sheer meanness," "repugnant," "hunger crisis," "repulsive," "cruel," "disastrous."  All this over a 5% cut, almost all of which is intended to come from able-bodied, employable adults who were not even eligible for the program at all until just a few years ago?  Brezhnev would be proud!

Although not so over-the-top in the rhetoric department, even far more dishonest in my opinion was the lead editorial of Friday September 20 in the New York Times.   Here's what they have to say:

In what can be seen only as an act of supreme indifference, House Republicans passed a bill on Thursday that would drastically cut federal food stamps and throw 3.8 million Americans out of the program in 2014.  The vote came two weeks after the Agriculture Department reported that 17.6 million households did not have enough to eat at some point in 2012 because they lacked the resources to put food on the table. It came two days after the Census Bureau reported that 15 percent of Americans, or 46.5 million people, live in poverty.

The evidence cited by the NYT in favor of its argument is completely fraudulent.  As previously discussed by me here, the DOA did not report "that 17.6 million households did not have enough to eat at some point in 2012" or anything like it.  The report instead found that 17.6 million households, or 49 million individuals, were "food insecure" at some time in 2012, as determined by an affirmative response to the proposition: "We worried whether our food would run out before we got money to buy more."  That question was completely cynically contrived to get a "yes" answer from most or all food stamp recipients, since the program by its design requires recipients to manage a limited budget throughout a month.  If the food stamp program serves 48 million people, and still leaves all or almost all of them  in "food insecurity," (or as the NYT would say, without "enough to eat") shouldn't it be completely scrapped and replaced with something that works, instead of cut a lousy 5%?  Similarly, the Census Bureau "poverty rate" statistic is a total fraud, as previously covered by me many times, including here and here.    To give just one example of the massive dishonesty, included in the government's supposed 46 million in "poverty" are almost 300,000 here in Manhattan, many of whom are observably getting in excess of $100,000 per family per year in in-kind government handouts (housing, Medicaid, food stamps, cell phones, parking spaces), all of which are counted at zero in the poverty statistics.

The question I have about the NYT is, are they intentionally perpetrating the fraud, or have they themselves been taken in by others?  Those are the only two possibilities, and neither is good.  As a partial answer, I would point out that it is not possible to read the DOA's "food insecurity" report and come away thinking that they are saying that the 17.6 million households did not have "enough to eat."

Anyway, from their perspective, the advocates are right to fight for every dollar of government spending, because when the first chips of the edifice start to fall, the whole thing could go quickly like a house of cards, just like the Soviet Union.