Late last week the Republican-majority US House of Representatives passed a draconian measure to cut nearly $40 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP; colloquially known as the “food stamps” program) over the next ten years.
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, nearly 47 million Americans received SNAP benefits in 2012, and 72 percent of SNAP beneficiaries are families with children. That same year, the SNAP program cost American taxpayers around $81 billion, about 92% of which went directly towards purchasing food – meaning SNAP is an extremely efficient program. While $81 billion certainly sounds like a lot of money (mostly because it is, and because enrollment spiked post-recession), we also have to realize that – when broken down – we’re spending very, very little on each recipient: about $4.45 per day.
The bill – which passed, for all intents and purposes, along party lines (217-210) – thankfully will die in the Senate (and if it doesn’t, it would almost certainly be vetoed by President Obama), but that really isn’t what matters right now. What matters is that 217 (mostly Republican) members of congress believe that taking food off of the tables of some of the poorest American families is fiscally responsible, while simultaneously campaigning all over the country urging Americans to forego Obamacare – to live uninsured.
The juxtaposition of these two messages is horribly ironic, though altogether unsurprising. We have, for years, been exposed to the conservative disillusion of America’s existential battle between the Takers and the Makers. The “Takers” are those Americans enrolled in what conservatives love to call “entitlement” programs (SNAP, welfare, Medicaid, etc.) – who in their minds are overwhelmingly black and Latino, though they are split about evenly between black and white in the case of welfare – while the “Makers” (sometimes known as the “Job Creators”) are those who Mitt Romney describes as “hard-working Americans” – otherwise known as “white people.”
In 1986 – under Ronald Reagan – congress passed the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA), which required hospitals who accept Medicare and Medicaid (otherwise known as almost every hospital) to provide emergency medical care to anyone in need – regardless of whether or not they are insured. From a moral standpoint, it’s a terrific piece of legislation; the unfortunate consequence, however, is that the costs of care for the uninsured are passed on to those who are, leading to higher insurance premiums.
According to a study, approximately 37% of the costs for the care of the uninsured in 2008 – approximately $42.7 billion, and this was before the recession, after which more Americans became uninsured – went unpaid and were eventually shifted to the insured, a cost of over $1,000 per family. This cost is, essentially, a hidden tax on the insured.
The truth is that the American healthcare system, in its current incarnation, is a system of Takers and Makers; those who don’t have insurance drive up the costs for those who do. In 2012, 45 million Americans were uninsured, nearly as many as the number of Americans receiving SNAP benefits. Making healthcare available for those who previously couldn’t afford it through cross-subsidization (in which the young, and healthy, pay higher premiums under the premise that they will one day be older and sicker while paying lower premiums) and tax-subsidization (for those in low-income situations) is the most efficient way to provide quality healthcare to every American while also reducing their expenditures.
It stands to reason, then, that creating a near-universal form of health coverage for Americans should greatly reduce the costs passed onto the insured to cover those who wouldn’t be (largely undocumented citizens and those who simply choose not to enroll in the healthcare system, accepting a fine of either $95 or 1% of their salary, whichever is higher).
According to the Congressional Budget Office, we’ll see a significant drop in the number of uninsured Americans beginning in 2014, and even greater decline as the program expands. Combine this with the lower premiums we’re already seeing in many state Obamacare exchanges, and this can only be seen as net-positive for the American taxpayer – reducing their insurance premiums is just as good as a tax break, if not better.
Congressional Republicans want to cut funding from the SNAP program because they believe it’s “fiscally responsible” and that the system is “out of control”; they believe that the best way to solve our budgetary issues is by allowing millions of Americans to go hungry, so they’ve attempted to cut $40 billion in funding over the next 10 years. But if that $40 billion in spending is so important to them, why do they seem to ignore the $40+ billion in additional healthcare costs that they can save the American people every year?
Rather than taking food away from millions of American children, we can do the responsible thing by cutting thousands of dollars in healthcare costs for American families while still providing the same benefits to those who are less fortunate.
The GOP is constantly deriding the “Takers,” but the irony is that, by encouraging their base to forego enrollment in Obamacare, they are, essentially, turning the constituencies who elect them into office into the very same people they seem to despise. The idea that someone can be for cutting the SNAP program, while against the Affordable Care Act is, simply, intellectually dishonest – one cuts “waste” (because in their eyes feeding the poor is wasted spending), the other creates significantly more. It also happens to be bad policy, and bad for the people they represent – those who stand to benefit the most from Obamacare and Medicaid expansion are those living in southern, Republican-controlled states.
The Takers vs. Makers narrative works for conservative politicians because they believe that everyone is able to “pick themselves up” by their own proverbial bootstraps. As a disillusioned Craig T. Nelson (a.k.a. “Coach”) once told Glenn Beck, “I’ve been on food stamps and welfare, anybody help me out?…No.”
Programs like SNAP and welfare are precisely what allow for American families to stay out of poverty. In 2012, SNAP kept 4.7 million Americans above the poverty level – including 2.1 million children. The problem is that the Republican party has racialized these programs to extreme lengths, painting a picture of the average “entitlement” recipient as an unemployed minority collecting checks, buying iPhones and voting for Barack Obama when this image couldn’t be further from the truth.
By doing so, the conservative base has been able to turn this into an “Us” vs. “Them” issue. What they aren’t willing to admit, however, is that it’s their people – and their constituents – who are also Takers. Twenty-five percent of people in the states of Texas and Florida – the home states of Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio (two of the most outspoken opponents of Obamacare), respectively – are uninsured, the highest rates in the nation. The Takers vs. Makers narrative only seems to apply when they find it politically convenient.
I’m not sure why – maybe it’s because I’m an idealist who still trusts in the social contract – but there’s a part of me that doesn’t believe that these congressmen truly believe in what they’re saying. I have a hard time believing that 217 representatives would vote to starve millions of Americans, many of whom reside in their districts. I refuse to believe that Republicans can’t see the value in universally insuring every American so that no one winds up on welfare or food stamps because of a freak accident or illness.
The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing southern whites to vote against their self-interests. Purchasing health insurance can only help you; providing affordable healthcare for others helps you by lowering your premiums. Providing nutritional assistance to those in need helps everyone by enabling their upward mobility – Craig T. Nelson would likely not have become a moderately successful “actor” without government assistance. Conservative, Republican policies seem to be aimed at destroying those possibilities.
A friend of mine once told me that he could be physically attracted to Jenny McCarthy if it weren’t for the fact that she’s trying to kill our children. I feel the same way about Republican politicians – I could respect them, and even their ideologies, if they weren’t actively working to harm the American people. It’s okay to feel a certain way about a certain policy; it’s another thing entirely to convince the less informed to reject policies that can help them and their families.
Conservatives and Tea Partiers love to call themselves “patriots,” but the reality is that – in a society bound by a social contract – there’s nothing patriotic about harming others out of your own self-interest.