07.15.2013 Policy Points

A Politics of Cruelty

Writing in The New York Times, Paul Krugman criticizes the politics of the farm bill, particularly the House of Represenative’s decision to separate nutrition assistance from farm subsidies.

So: Food stamp usage has indeed soared in recent years, with the percentage of the population receiving stamps rising from 8.7 in 2007 to 15.2 in the most recent data. There is, however, no mystery here. SNAP is supposed to help families in distress, and lately a lot of families have been in distress.

In fact, SNAP usage tends to track broad measures of unemployment, like U6, which includes the underemployed and workers who have temporarily given up active job search. And U6 more than doubled in the crisis, from about 8 percent before the Great Recession to 17 percent in early 2010. It’s true that broad unemployment has since declined slightly, while food stamp numbers have continued to rise — but there’s normally some lag in the relationship, and it’s probably also true that some families have been forced to take food stamps by sharp cuts in unemployment benefits.

What about the theory, common on the right, that it’s the other way around — that we have so much unemployment thanks to government programs that, in effect, pay people not to work? (Soup kitchens caused the Great Depression!) The basic answer is, you have to be kidding. Do you really believe that Americans are living lives of leisure on $134 a month, the average SNAP benefit?

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