OPINION: Poor white cash: The GOP and food stamps
By Edward Wyckoff Williams
The Republican party is engaged in class warfare against poor and middleclass white Americans. It is a little-discussed fact but an ironic one worth noting, since those are the very same people who elect them.
This week, House Republicans passed a nutrition bill that eliminates $39 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, previously known as food stamps. Nearly 47 million Americans currently rely on SNAP — roughly 15 percent of the population — and 17.6 million U.S. households are considered food insecure, which means they aren’t sure where their next meal will come from. According to the Department of Agriculture, nearly 17 million of these people are children, 5 million are seniors and 300,000 are elderly veterans.
And despite prevailing racial stereotypes, which first became mainstream during President Ronald Reagan’s tenure and his propagation of the Chicago “welfare queen” myth, the overwhelming majority of food stamp recipients are white. And curiously, many of them are Republicans. USDA data show that in 2011, 37 percent of food stamp users were from white, non-Hispanic households.
And of the 254 counties where the number of food stamp recipients doubled between 2007 and 2011, Republican candidate Mitt Romney won 213 in last year’s presidential election. Bloomberg News compiled research revealing that Kentucky’s Owsley County — which backed Romney with 81 percent of its vote — had the largest proportion of food stamp recipients of all the communities where Romney won.
What is most curious is that this isn’t surprising. The poorest states in the union tend to be the most reliably red, with Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas among the top 10.
According to the Bloomberg research, more than half of Owsley County’s population — 52 percent — received food stamps in 2011 alone. The county’s racial makeup is 97.6 percent white, and it has a median household income of $19,344 — in comparison with the national median household income of $52,762. In fact, 4 in 10 of the country’s residents live below the poverty line, based on U.S. census statistics.
Republican Rep. Hal Rogers, who represents Owsley County and won his 16th term in the House of Representatives last year, boldly joined the GOP majority that voted to cut billions from food stamp services. It seems mind-boggling that Rogers also won 84 percent of the vote, yet in matters that most concern the economic interests of his constituents, he acts with impunity.
And Rogers isn’t alone.
Two-thirds of the 39 legislators who represent America’s 100 hungriest counties voted “yea” on behalf of the measure, which eventually passed 217-210. Reps. Andy Barr, R-Ky., Paul Broun, R-Ga., Gregg Harper, R-Miss., and a host of others joined. In fact, all but 15 members of the Grand Old Party voted in favor.
It has become a rite of passage within Republican circles to oppose government spending and all things Obama, but one would think that poverty and hunger had no political affiliation. They do, however.
Not only have congressional Republicans committed to cutting basic services like food stamps and threatened a government shutdown to stop the funding of health-care services to the most vulnerable, but they have also shown little inclination to end the automatic budget cut known as sequestration.
This means that in addition to the jobs lost during the recession and since the sequester first took effect, an additional estimated 900,000 jobs could be lost in the coming year. That would only exacerbate the poverty levels in America and devastate the communities now struggling to stay afloat.
Keep in mind that the GOP, its tea party caucus and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, have refused to bring President Barack Obama’s American Jobs Act to the House floor for a simple vote. That alone, with its investments in education and infrastructure spending, could have created an additional 2 million jobs, according to initial reports from the Congressional Budget Office.
Republicans have become either so deluded or so unhinged that in their effort to undermine the legacy of this first African-American president, they have, in fact, waged war on their most loyal base supporters. Media reports have focused on the fact that the House bill is dead on arrival in the Senate and would never be signed into law by the president, which is true. But food stamp recipients also face all-but-certain cuts starting Nov. 1 because a temporary boost from the 2009 Recovery Act is set to expire. All this as the nation watches as carnival barkers in the GOP threaten a government shutdown and vow to fight Obama on increasing the debt limit, which places the full faith and credit of the United States in jeopardy. It seems that Republicans are happy to play the fiddle as Washington burns. And their response to the poor, the hungry and needy is “Eat cake.”
— Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington, Arise America and national syndicated radio.