Nowhere is the chasm between America's political class and its working poor more vast than in the demand to cut food stamps.
Gary Younge Guardian/UK 9 December 2011
On Monday afternoon this week, Rachelle Grimmer went into a Department of Health and Human Services in Texas with her two children, Timothy, aged 10, and Ramie, aged 12, and asked for a new case worker who could assist her application for food stamps. She was taken to a small room, where she pulled a gun, sparking a seven-hour standoff with police. Shortly before midnight, three shots were heard. Rachelle had shot both herself and her kids. Police rushed in to find the mother dead and Ramie and Timothy in critical condition. Ramie actually hung on until Wednesday. Timothy's condition remains critical.
In this period between Thanksgiving and Christmas (when many Americans are worrying about what overindulging will do to their waistline), a significant number is wracked with an entirely different concern: not having enough to eat. In one of the wealthiest countries in the world, food insecurity is a common, growing and enduring problem. Between 2008 and 2011, the number of those living on food stamps, assistance to those who lack sufficient money to feed themselves and their families, soared by 50%, putting one American in seven in the programme. Catholic Charities recently revealed that requests for the working poor were up 80% over the second quarter, and up 59% for the middle class.
Similarly, Operation Homefront, a national organisation that feeds the families of military personnel, has seen demand for help double over the last two years. The Washington Post reported that in Fort Hood, Texas, military families stayed up after midnight to register for a free turkey online for Thanksgiving. The 450 birds were gone within an hour. Even as soldiers fight for empire abroad, their families struggle for food at home.
But want has become a term of political abuse, with Newt Gingrich launching his campaign earlier this year by branding Obama "the food stamp president" and continues to berate him as such. Indeed, rather than impose taxes on millionaires, Republicans are eager to balance the budget on the stomachs of the hungry.
These benefits are not particularly generous. "The average [food stamp] recipient gets $134 a month in assistance, which works out to $4.40 a day. That's 10% less than the US Department of Agriculture's "thrifty" meal budget, and about half its "moderate" budget. For your average well-fed American, living on a daily ration of less than $5 for food prepared at home would be hard to imagine. But without SNAP benefits, 46 million people would be in a state of anguish rather than just scraping by."
Yet the Republicans want to reduce spending on food stamps by around 20%. This will be the primary terrain on which the forthcoming elections will be fought: the needs and aspirations of the working poor. Not so much the destitute – America is always forgetting about them – but the working poor and those who fear descending among them. But for the Democrats to capitalise on these anxieties, they will have to shift the country's sense of what it takes to be poor and convince them that government has a role in alleviating that condition before desperation kicks in.
You'd think that would be straightforward. But illusions of meritocracy, equal opportunity, class fluidity and social mobility die hard. Sooner or later, though, reality tends to intrude. There is only so long you can pretend that such a large group of people doesn't exist, and as the poverty rates grow, more and more people who are likely to vote become ensnared in it. A new measurement of poverty by the Census Bureau, which takes regional cost of living, medical payments and other expenses that do not intrude on the official poverty count, found a third of Americans are either in poverty or desperately close to it.
"These numbers are higher than we anticipated," Trudi Renwick, the bureau's head poverty statistician, told the New York Times recently. "There are more people struggling than the official numbers show." Poverty may be relative but hunger is absolute. The third world is alive and struggling in the heart of the first. And those who claim they can't see it, either refuse to see it for what it is or simply do not want to look.