House Republicans pass a bill to cut $39 billion from food stamp programs. We explore the politics of food stamp spending.

Guests

  • Tamara Keith congressional reporter, NPR.
  • Jim Weill president, Food Research and Action Center.
  • Robert Rector senior research fellow, Heritage Foundation.

Transcript

  • 10:06:54

    MR. STEVE ROBERTSThanks so much for joining us. I'm Steve Roberts with George Washington University sitting in today for Diane Rehm. Diane will be out this week for a cause dear to her heart. She'll be in California to star in a play to benefit Alzheimer's research. She looks forward to being back here with you next Monday, Sept. 30.

  • 10:07:11

    MR. STEVE ROBERTSLast week, House Republicans voted to cut the food stamp program by $40 billion. This is eight times more than what's in the Senate bill. To talk about the politics of food stamps, I'm joined in the studio by: Jim Weill of the Food Research and Action Center, Tamara Keith of NPR, and Robert Rector of The Heritage Foundation. Welcome to you all.

  • 10:07:30

    MS. TAMARA KEITHThanks.

  • 10:07:31

    MR. JIM WEILLGood morning.

  • 10:07:31

    MR. ROBERT RECTORThanks.

  • 10:07:31

    ROBERTSThank you for inaugurating out new studios here on Connecticut Avenue. And, of course, you can join us, as always, but we're having a little bit of a problem with our phone lines this morning because we're in a new studio. So, please, do call us, but the number is 202-243-5440. Let me read it again, 202-543-5440. Please join us on this subject.

  • 10:07:57

    ROBERTSAnd, of course, you have the option of email, drshow@wamu.org, Twitter, Facebook, and all the other ways we communicate with our listeners. Tamara Keith, tell us what's in this bill that passed the House last week virtually on a party line vote. I think there were two Democrats who voted for it, one Republican who voted against it.

  • 10:08:17

    KEITHThat's correct. And it's a cut to the nutrition program to the food stamp program of 40 billion over 10 years. So that's about 4 billion a year. That works out to about a 5 percent cut over that time. It targets a range of cuts, some technical changes, closing what some would call loopholes. Sort of the biggest chunk, the biggest group of people that are targeted with this are called ABAWDs is the technical term, able-bodied adults without dependents who are unemployed.

  • 10:08:56

    KEITHSo these are folks who don't have a job and, in many cases, don't have prospects. In other cases, the argument is that they don't want a job and that they're living on food stamps and this would push them into it. That's sort of the pull there.

  • 10:09:13

    ROBERTSAnd there's 3.8 million estimated who would lose benefits and then...

  • 10:09:16

    KEITHYes. Overall total and...

  • 10:09:20

    ROBERTS...and then a number who will -- benefits will be decreased.

  • 10:09:23

    KEITHAbout 850,000, and those are numbers from the Congressional Budget Office, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. And of those able-bodied unemployed adults, there are about 1.7 million who, in the first year, would lose benefits.

  • 10:09:36

    ROBERTSAnd, as you point out, the Senate bill, very different.

  • 10:09:39

    KEITHExtremely different. The Senate bill, which was passed some months ago, makes about $4 billion in trims over a decade, so much less. And sort of the biggest difference between the Farm Bill on the Senate side and the Farm Bill on the House side is that on the Senate side -- as has been for generations, 50, 60 years, something like that -- it combines the food stamp program with all of the other farm programs, crop insurance, other subsidies.

  • 10:10:10

    KEITHOn the House side, it was broken apart, and the Farm Bill Farm Bill, as it was called, was passed back in July. And this most recent vote was on the food stamp part of the Farm Bill and had much larger cuts than had previously been done.

  • 10:10:28

    ROBERTSNow, Robert Rector, from The Heritage Foundation, you have spoken widely on this, written widely on this, consulted with House Republicans. Tamara raised the question of the motive behind this. Give our listeners -- what's driving this very significant change in the House bill?

  • 10:10:47

    RECTORWell, I think that the first thing to understand is that food stamps is only the tip of what we call the means-tested welfare iceberg. The federal government runs over 80 programs to assist poor people, providing cash, food, housing, medical care, and social services. Total spending on those programs last year came to $920 billion, close to $1 trillion a year.

  • 10:11:09

    RECTORIf you look at the Obama budget over the next decade, he's proposing to spend $12.7 trillion assisting poor people. In a given month, one out of three Americans receives benefits from at least one of those programs. This is a very huge system. And in the context of that, close to $1 trillion a year in spending, $12 trillion over the next 10 years, the so-called cuts in the food stamp program are really not even a rounding error. OK? What we need to do is provide assistance to those who need aid, but we also need to make the system work better. And the key to that...

  • 10:11:46

    ROBERTSWhat's wrong with the current system in your view?

  • 10:11:47

    RECTORThe key to that is that food stamps, like most of the 80 programs, is a one-way handout. The taxpayer provides assistance, but nothing is required from the recipient in return. We found from welfare reform in the '90s that that doesn't really work that well. And what we ought to be doing is to absolutely be giving assistance to everybody who needs it, but, in return for that assistance, we should require people to take steps to move towards self-sufficiency, particularly these able-bodied adults without dependents.

  • 10:12:18

    RECTORWe have tougher work requirements in the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families Program (sic) where you have mothers with 2-year-old children. We ask more of them than we ask a 23-year-old guy with no kids. That doesn't really make any sense. I don't want to just throw that person off the rolls. I would never do that, but I do think that asking him to prepare for work or look for a job -- if he can't find a job, I don't want to cut him off. But I want him to do something to try to move forward in his life.

  • 10:12:47

    ROBERTSNow, Jim Weill, your organization, Food Research and Action Center, has been very involved in food stamps for a generation. I remember covering this fight back in the early '80s. Your take on what Robert Rector has said.

  • 10:13:02

    WEILLWell, first of all, of course, being thrown off food stamps is not a rounding error if you're the person being thrown off food stamps. And while Mr. Rector says he wouldn't cut anybody off, the Congressional Budget Office has said that 4 million people are going to be cut off the program because of this law. Just to take one example of the ABAWD provision, it eliminates the ability of a state to get a waiver in a high unemployment area where there are not jobs to get a waiver to take people out of the forced work requirement during the period when there are no jobs.

  • 10:13:38

    WEILLAnd we know there are huge areas in this country where there are five, six, seven people looking for jobs for every job opening that there is. So by definition, the House bill throws 4 million people off the program. That's the CBO estimate, and that's the purpose of it is to throw people off the program. If I could just add one other thing, the ABAWD provision is just one provision in the bill. There's a provision that throws off even more people. And those are mostly seniors and working parents and kids who are thrown off the program, and that number is about 2.1 million.

  • 10:14:14

    ROBERTSLet me ask you this, Tamara Keith. There has been a long bipartisan consensus on food stamps. There was an op-ed piece in the L.A. Times, co-written by Bob Dole, the former Senate majority leader, Republican from Kansas. And why has this bipartisan consensus broken down in your view?

  • 10:14:36

    KEITHWell, and the other co-author was Tom Daschle, the Democratic head of the Senate back in the day. So I think that the reason that this is broken down is that in the House, in particular, there are a group of Republicans -- not all of the Republicans, but somewhere in the, I don't know, 40 to 70 people range who are elected from very conservative districts, who have been sent to Washington to do exactly what they're doing.

  • 10:15:06

    KEITHAnd the numbers are such in the House that that group of 50, 60, 70 members are, in some ways, controlling the way the House is going. In part, that's because, in order for those 70 folks to vote for the Farm Bill, the food stamp portion of the Farm Bill, they demanded more cuts, cuts to a level that Democrats wouldn't support.

  • 10:15:32

    KEITHThe traditional way that Farm Bills have been done is that you have the interests of agriculture and the interests of urban Democrats. You combine them. You build enough of a coalition to actually pass these bills. In some ways, Farm Bills are your Christmas tree. They've got gifts for everybody, and that way they pass. And that has now broken down in the House.

  • 10:15:54

    ROBERTSNow, Robert Rector, let me ask you this -- and we've already got a number of callers raising this question -- 7.3 percent unemployment, but the real unemployment rate is about twice that if you include underrepresented people, underemployed people. I noticed in the day that this bill passed that there was a big story, facing page in The Washington Post, of a job fair out in Maryland where it said thousands of people an hour were coming in.

  • 10:16:22

    RECTORMm hmm.

  • 10:16:23

    ROBERTSNow, an awful lot of people say, hey, I'm on food stamps 'cause I can't find a job, and I want to work and that this whole notion that somehow we're shiftless and ungrateful is just wrong. How do you answer that argument?

  • 10:16:37

    RECTORAbsolutely. And we don't want to cut anyone off arbitrarily. We simply want to suggest that an individual who is getting the assistance ought to be required to do something, such as supervised job search. And incidentally, it takes many years to implement these programs, so really we're not talking about next month.

  • 10:16:59

    ROBERTSBut don't these people want to work?

  • 10:17:02

    RECTORNow, the reality is that this reform that's being proposed here was actually included in the 1996 welfare reform act. It had an ABAWDs work requirement that's never really been implemented. OK? So it's been in the law for close to 20 years. And what the Republicans are saying is, let's enforce that law.

  • 10:17:19

    RECTORAnd the key there to that provision, the reason that the welfare reform worked in 1996, mainly for single mothers, was that you didn't say, oh, we assume you can't get a job. You say, look, we're not cutting anybody off, but if you're getting assistance, we want you to come down to the office and begin to take steps to try to move. And this is a long-term process. I don't want to cut people off next month.

  • 10:17:44

    ROBERTSBut let me follow up on this. On the floor of the House -- you're taking a rather benign view -- but there are members who said, the government will no longer pay you to sit on your couch and no longer feed you if you sit on your couch. Another congressman said, there are plenty of jobs out there. I think an awful lot of people say that's just not true.

  • 10:18:06

    RECTORI think the answer is -- whether there are jobs or not is, when a person comes to you and asks for assistance from the taxpayer and says, I can't find a job, the way to find that out is to say, fine, we're here to give you assistance, but next week, we'd like you to come down here for a couple hours and do some supervised job search. And what you find is that a lot of people will do that, and they will get jobs. And that's to the benefit of the taxpayer and to the benefit of the recipient.

  • 10:18:34

    ROBERTSThat's Robert Rector of The Heritage Foundation. Also with me, Tamara Keith of NPR and Jim Weill of the Food Research and Action Center. Give us a call. Our phone number today is 202-243-5440. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane. We'll be right back with your calls and your questions.

  • 10:20:01

    ROBERTS...back. I'm Steve Roberts from George Washington University. I'm sitting in today for Diane. Our subject this hour is food stamps and the House bill which cut a significant amount, 4 -- 5 percent a year, $80 billion over 10 years.

  • 10:20:15

    ROBERTSAnd I have three experts with me: Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation who helped write that bill with House Republicans, Tamara Keith who's been covering the issue for NPR, and Jim Weill of the Food Research and Action Center. And, Jim, before we left, Robert Rector was explaining and defending the requirements in the bill. Your take on what he said?

  • 10:20:39

    WEILLWell, his argument is the people passed this bill -- that the experts say they're going to cut off food stamp benefits for 4 million people -- really are people who wouldn't hurt a fly. And that's just absurd. The purpose of this bill is to cut off those 4 million people, whether or not they are able to get work. Or in the case of more than 2 million of them, seniors and working parents, whether they're working but they're going to change and lower the income and asset rules for them. The '96 law, as to the ABAWDs, which, again, is a minority of the people being cut off...

  • 10:21:15

    ROBERTSLet's again remind our listeners what that means.

  • 10:21:17

    WEILLRight, sorry. The able-bodied adults without dependents, basically childless adults of working age. The '96 law said -- and this was incredibly harsh at the time -- you can only get three months benefits out of every 36 months unless you're working or in a particularly narrowly-structured type of employment and training program.

  • 10:21:39

    WEILLThat has been enforced over the years. There was a provision that was added in '96 because it was so Draconian that said, in areas with very high unemployment, the governor can ask for a waiver from that in those areas. What this does is just pull out those waivers...

  • 10:21:57

    ROBERTSAnd now...

  • 10:21:58

    WEILL...so it makes it tougher than the '96 law by far.

  • 10:22:02

    ROBERTSAnd I gather that a number of the areas where -- that have requested waivers, including a number of Republican governors, from states, many of them are rural where food insecurity is even worse in many ways than some of the big cities.

  • 10:22:18

    WEILLRight. I mean, the -- in many ways, the stereotype of hunger in this country is in urban and a city area. But food insecurity is as high in rural areas as in metropolitan areas. Food stamp participation is as high in rural areas as in metropolitan areas. This is a national problem. Hunger's a national problem, and food stamps is a very strong effective program addressing that wherever.

  • 10:22:41

    ROBERTSNow, Tamara Keith, in your reports, you've also been reflecting some of the statistics about what we just described as food insecurity, which is basically a fancy word for hunger.

  • 10:22:54

    KEITHJust a fancy word, yeah.

  • 10:22:55

    ROBERTSAnd how serious a problem is that in America today?

  • 10:22:58

    KEITHIt continues to be a problem. I mean, I think that it -- if it's your personal problem, it's a very, very big problem. And the various organizations, the charitable organizations that help people with food banks and things like that, these groups say that the cuts that have been envisioned in the House Bill are more than they provide in a year, that these cuts that are being envisioned are much bigger than everything that all of the charities do combined, which puts it in some perspective, that people, even on food stamps -- many people who are on food stamps are going to these food banks because the food stamps simply isn't enough.

  • 10:23:47

    KEITHI mean, for most people, you really can't live on food stamps. I met a young man in Arkansas at a food bank. He's that 23-year-old able-bodied young man, desperately wants to work, gets on the bus every single day, goes trying to find a job. But, you know, he lives in a zip code that doesn't have a lot of employment available. And he's doing his best, but, you know, at the moment food stamps are a part of his lifeline. But he's getting, like, $88 a month, which is nothing. As he says, I'm a big boy. I like to eat.

  • 10:24:21

    KEITHAnd so, you know, I followed him through this food bank line getting fresh vegetables and chicken marsala and bread and milk and watermelon. He was so excited to get milk because he had bought cereal the other day. And now he could have a full meal. And this is real life. I mean, this is happening for people -- you know, it's not the stereotypes. It's people that you wouldn't even necessarily expect who find themselves in food bank lines or find themselves having to rely on food stamps to make it through the month.

  • 10:24:58

    ROBERTSYou know, Robert Rector, this is an old debate. This is not a new debate. But how do you answer that young man? You say -- or he says, I'm looking for work. I can't find it. I need help.

  • 10:25:13

    RECTORThat individual would not and should not be cut off under the program at all. I've been doing this kind of work, work fair, since the Carter Administration. And I would never support a work requirement that simply says to that type of individual, get out of here, we're not going to give you benefits. But the reality is that that's not what the program would do. And food stamps really doesn't require much of anything from the six to 7 million able-bodied people who are on it who don't do any work at all.

  • 10:25:46

    RECTORAnd what -- 95 percent of the American public, including 95 percent of identified Democrats, believe in the principle that an able-bodied individual who receives cash, food, housing or medical care from the government ought to work or prepare for work as a condition of receiving that aid. And that's the principle we had in 1996...

  • 10:26:05

    ROBERTSWell, we keep coming back to the issue about that young man says, I want to work.

  • 10:26:11

    RECTORThen he's fulfilled -- as long as -- in my mind, as long as he's doing consistent job search, he's fulfilled the obligation -- more than fulfilled the obligation that I would want for him, and he shouldn't be cut off. But the problem is that, for the most part, the 6 million people aren't required to do anything. And those are the details. There are really two levels (unintelligible)...

  • 10:26:31

    ROBERTSDo you think there are a lot of people out there who are unemployed and don't want to work and are shiftless and lazy?

  • 10:26:39

    RECTORI don't think it works in that sort of stark dichotomy. OK? What we do know from the 1996 reform law and from every type of work programs -- these are called work activation programs in Europe where they're increasingly popular -- is that if you give benefits as a one-way handout and don't ask anything in return, it promotes unnecessary dependents, which actually harms the recipient.

  • 10:27:02

    RECTORSo what you want to do is not say, we're cutting the benefits, go away. You want to say, look, we'll give anyone who needs aid -- we're going to give them aid. But we expect you to come in here and do some steps to try to move toward self-sufficiency. And that increases employment, and it decreases the number of people who don't truly need the assistance. I can't put numbers on either one of those things, but I can say that a system that's pure one-way handouts that asked nothing of the recipient really in the long term doesn't benefit the recipient.

  • 10:27:34

    ROBERTSJim Weill, how do you answer Robert Rector's argument?

  • 10:27:37

    WEILLWell, Mr. Rector says he wouldn't cut that guy from Arkansas off, but the House would cut 4 million guys and gals like that off. The program -- first of all, half the people -- half the adults in the program of working age are working. The food stamp program is not just for people who have no jobs. It's also for people who have very low pay, and that's increasingly a problem in our -- this country. And the House Bill would throw a couple million people from households with very low pay out of the program as well.

  • 10:28:11

    WEILLBut for the people who aren't working at all, 80 percent of the people in the program either worked last year or are working the year after they get food stamps. We have a population of adults who work, who go from employment to unemployment, who go from employment to part-time employment. Everybody is out there struggling, particularly in this economy. As you know, wages -- the median wage is lower than it was before the recession at the height of the recession. Everybody's struggling.

  • 10:28:39

    WEILLIf these work programs actually help people, gave people job training, gave people placement assistance, as states are allowed to do, then you can throw off somebody. And current rules allow you to throw off somebody who refuses a job placement that they're offered. But there isn't enough money for that, and the rules in the House Bill let states throw people out of the program even if they don't give them any job help, any job training. And there's an additional provision that gives governors money to throw people out of the program.

  • 10:29:15

    ROBERTSRobert Rector?

  • 10:29:16

    RECTORI worked in that provision as I worked on the welfare reform law in 1996. It does nothing of the kind. These are the same arguments that were made back during the time of Bill Clinton when it was said that all the welfare reform was going to do was throw people off the rolls and increase poverty. Now, what happened was when we put in work requirements on one of the 80 anti-poverty programs that we had, we had a dramatic decline in welfare rolls -- that's true.

  • 10:29:43

    RECTORBut we also had a surge in employment among the affected populations. And child poverty dropped at record levels after the reform for about a half a decade. And that's because, rather than just kicking people off, what we want to do is help them to move toward self-sufficiency. I would agree that if all we were doing was cutting people off here, I would not support this.

  • 10:30:05

    RECTORI would even say, if there's a concern, that there's not going to be enough job placement assistance, enough supervised job search in those things, then take a little bit of the savings and plow it back to provide more money to administer those programs because the core of this is a work activation strategy that supervises the individuals and tries to move them toward self-sufficiency.

  • 10:30:27

    RECTORThat's what we did under welfare reform in 1996. It was very successful. But most people don't understand that of the 80 programs providing cash, food, housing and medical care for the poor, only two of them have any type of work requirement. That's the problem. And food stamps doesn't.

  • 10:30:43

    ROBERTSTamara Keith, I want to ask you about the politics here.

  • 10:30:46

    KEITHYeah.

  • 10:30:46

    ROBERTSThere was an interesting article in National Review, a conservative outlet, criticizing this bill, criticizing Heritage and saying, Republicans have a tin ear for focusing on food stamps -- was the phrase. And they said, look a Republican candidate for president lost in part in the last election because he came across as someone who didn't care about ordinary people and that this focus on food stamps is repeating the same mistake Republicans have made. What's your reading of the politics here?

  • 10:31:18

    KEITHI think that the pitch that's being made by the conservatives who are pushing this would be one of -- it's compassionate conservatism that the -- you know, we -- the message I heard on the House floor was a lot of, you know, we want to help people help themselves, that sort of a message. I don't know how that plays. I don't know how much that is actually getting out into the world. I think, frankly, the politics of this are the politics of a lot of things right now, which is that many House Republicans do not have to worry about a Democratic challenger.

  • 10:31:56

    KEITHThey have to worry about a Republican primary. And if your only fear is somebody coming from the right, then it's not -- then this issue plays just as well as a lot of the other issues. It plays just as well as, you know, fighting to the death to eliminate funding to Obamacare, any number of other issues that are coming to a head right now. It's a lot of the same dynamics.

  • 10:32:24

    ROBERTSRobert Rector, I want to read a quote for you from President Obama speaking last week at Binghamton University in New York. I covered Congress in the early '80s when Ronald Regan led the charge to reform welfare and also cut food stamps. And what seemed to me to be at work was often an animosity toward the poor and an argument to taxpayers that we're taking -- what the government is doing is taking good -- your hard-earned tax dollars and giving it to some undeserving poor. Now let me read what President Obama said last week.

  • 10:33:06

    ROBERTS"Unfortunately, we've got politics sometimes that divides instead of bringing people together. And we've seen it over the last couple of years, the tendency to suggest somehow that government is taking something from you and giving it to somebody else and your problems will be solved if we just ignore them or don't help them. And that, I think, is something we have constantly struggled against." That sounds to me like the same debate that happened in the early '80s as well during the...

  • 10:33:35

    RECTORIt sounds to me like it's strident and divisive. It also sounds very different from Bill Clinton who said basically the principle that I'm annunciating here today, which is we absolutely want to assist people, but we need to expect something back in return. The fact is that Obama spoke out against welfare reform in 1996.

  • 10:33:55

    RECTORHe voted against reauthorizing welfare reform when he was in the Senate. He's moved the debate very far to the left. But I think the principles that we had in place that said we want to have a generous -- we have a trillion dollars a year of assistance, but we need to expect something back to ensure that the taxpayers are getting fair use for their money and that the recipients move forward in their lives.

  • 10:34:19

    ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'd normally go to callers. But apparently we're still having a problem with our phone, and I appreciate that. But let me read some emails, and we'll try to get our listeners' views in here that way. This is Lisa from Indianapolis.

  • 10:34:35

    ROBERTSShe writes, "It seems that food stamps today take the place that charitable organizations once did. If food stamps are cut, do you think the government would consider tax incentives for small donors to donate to food banks? I try to donate to charity, but the amount I can afford is often smaller than the standard deduction." Jim Weill, what do you think?

  • 10:34:54

    WEILLSo the federal government food program has provided many times as much help as all the charitable organizations in America do in food, about 20 times as much. And the food banks and Catholic Charities, Catholic Bishops oppose this bill. The religious groups that give out food all will tell you, there's no way they can replace this cut, much less the program.

  • 10:35:18

    WEILLBefore -- we had charity before we had a food stamp program. And we had people dying of starvation in this country. And now one of the reasons we have a food stamp program is in 1967 CBS did a documentary in which a child living in the county next to Eric Cantor's district died from starvation. Charity cannot address this country's poverty and hunger problems.

  • 10:35:43

    ROBERTSRobert Rector, let me read this from Don Sanders in Blowing Rock, N.C. "The title of your program sanitizes and confines the subject. It really should be Hunger in America. We need less focus on the ins and outs of the congressional debate and more insight into the actualities, what's driving so many Americans to have to depend on SNAP" -- that's the supplemental program, the official name of food stamps -- "to depend on SNAP to feed their families every day."

  • 10:36:09

    RECTORWell, I think that hunger's an important issue, but I think we need to be factual about that. For example, we talked earlier about food insecurity, but the reality is that the people that are identified as food secure, the overwhelming majority of them report in that very same survey that they were not hungry for even a single day during the entire previous year. Overall, about 5 percent of Americans report that they were hungry for at least one day during the year. That's not good. About 1 percent of children were hungry.

  • 10:36:42

    RECTORBut I don't think that the answer to that is really just to spend more than a trillion dollars a year and just continue to enlarge the system. What we found when we did welfare reform in the 1990s was that, by asking people to help themselves, poverty went down dramatically -- record lows of poverty when that was implemented. Employment went up, and the burden on the taxpayer also went down. But that can't be our soul concern. We have to balance all three things.

  • 10:37:11

    ROBERTSBefore we take a break, Tamara, since you have studied the issue of food security, do you agree with Robert Rector's account or not?

  • 10:37:17

    KEITHI do not know the precise numbers on who's hungry and when. I am curious though about the $1 trillion figure. I'd love to get back to what that includes. I believe it also includes Medicaid and things for the aged, elderly, disabled.

  • 10:37:33

    ROBERTSTamara Keith from NPR, Robert Rector from Heritage, Jim Weill from Food Research and Action Center. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in for Diane. Hopefully our phones will be fixed, and we'll have your calls when we get back.

  • 10:40:02

    ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane. Our subject this hour, food stamps, a subject of a major fight in Congress with rival bills having been passed by the House and the Senate. I have three experts with me: Tamara Keith has been covering the issue for NPR, Jim Weill of the Food Research and Action Center, and Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation.

  • 10:40:21

    ROBERTSAnd we're going to try to go to one of our calls here. Judy in Tuscaloosa, Ala., welcome. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show." Judy?

  • 10:40:34

    JUDYHello?

  • 10:40:35

    ROBERTSYou're on "The Diane Rehm Show." Welcome. What's on your mind?

  • 10:40:39

    JUDYJust a couple of comments. First, hunger is very prevalent still. It was -- I'm 50. I was one of nine children. We were hungry without SNAP or what it was called at the time. I wouldn't have been able to study and receive an academic scholarship. Second, I'm now working with someone who is -- most states, like Alabama, require 15 hours of work. And this is an able-bodied individual without parents to his sister trying to put herself through school, working two jobs, needing assistance.

  • 10:41:13

    JUDYIt's -- they're working for -- need help. A documentary called "A Place At The Table" followed up on what CBS did in 1960, and that was just released last year. Fifteen million children in this country are hungry, and a lot of them you see in rural counties. Like I said, this young woman has a 3.8 average, putting herself through school...

  • 10:41:37

    ROBERTSRight.

  • 10:41:38

    JUDY...and still can't make it when milk is over $4.

  • 10:41:41

    ROBERTSOK. Thank you so much, Judy. Robert Rector, we have a lot of calls making very similar points. How do you answer Judy?

  • 10:41:49

    RECTORWell, first of all, let's talk about hunger. The numbers that are thrown around frequently about food security, that's a survey done by the Agriculture Department. They very explicitly state that they are not measuring hunger. And that survey itself has a question in it that asks the individual, were you hungry at any time, any single day, during the last 12 months? Most people that are labeled as food insecure say, no, I wasn't hungry at all. My child wasn't hungry at all.

  • 10:42:15

    RECTORWhen you look at that details, though, it does say that 5 percent of adults were hungry at some point for at least one day during the year, maybe 1, 1.5 percent of children, and that's a concern. But, again, the answer to this I don't believe is simply to give assistance without any requirements whatsoever. I think that what we saw with welfare reform in the 1990s was that, by asking people to do a little more to help themselves, we dramatically reduced poverty. Poverty is still structurally far lower than it was back in the early '90s.

  • 10:42:52

    ROBERTSOK. Let me go to another caller here. Shelby in Jacksonville, Fla., welcome. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 10:42:58

    SHELBYThank you. I have a...

  • 10:43:00

    ROBERTSHappy to have you. Go ahead, Shelby.

  • 10:43:02

    SHELBYI'm a 21-year-old senior in a private four-year university. My tuition for this year was $20,000. My books for the semester were $600. And I get $200 a month on an EBT card through the SNAP program, and that is how I eat. And I feel like there are many people in my situation. I'm getting an academic degree.

  • 10:43:24

    SHELBYI will be looking for a job soon. I am not currently working because I need to focus on my degree and maintain a grade point average and get into graduate school. So with all this pressure on young people, sometimes I feel it's hard to support yourself. And you might have to turn to services such as the SNAP program.

  • 10:43:45

    RECTORI don't -- I...

  • 10:43:46

    ROBERTSOh, just one second. I want to ask you, Shelby, do you have a lot of friends in a similar situation who would like to work or can't work because they're in school?

  • 10:43:57

    SHELBYI do. Additionally, I go to a pretty prestigious school, number one in the country for internships, so we're more encouraged to take unpaid internships than to take paying jobs.

  • 10:44:10

    ROBERTSOK, Shelby. Thank you very much. Tamara Keith, your reaction to Shelby's call?

  • 10:44:15

    KEITHIt happens that, you know, there are people like Shelby. There are people who are working full time in jobs that just don't pay enough to feed their kids throughout the month. It's tough times we live in in some ways.

  • 10:44:35

    ROBERTSYeah, Jim.

  • 10:44:36

    WEILLWe're not capturing here who's in this program, though. And I think we need to do that. It's not college students. Actually, college students have to be working in order to get help. It's not primarily the ABAWDs that Mr. Rector's been talking about. Mr. Rector has been trying to make this discussion about one issue. Half the people in this program are children. Close to 80 percent are children or seniors or people with disabilities. The number of working age adults in the program who are not parents taking care of young children is very modest.

  • 10:45:10

    WEILLAnd I want to go back to the fact that this bill, in addition to targeting these able-bodied adults without kids that we've spent most of the conversation about, also targets working parents with children, making the rules much more Draconian for them, so if you are working, you're less likely to get benefits. It targets seniors who have more than $3,000 in assets, whether it's a car or cash in the bank. So the bill throws more than 2 million seniors and parents with kids out of the program 'cause they're working too hard, in effect.

  • 10:45:46

    ROBERTSRobert Rector, fair comment?

  • 10:45:48

    RECTORNo. I don't think so. What the bill does is -- food stamps used to have an assets test as well as income test because it is supposed to be assistance for poor or very near poor people. Therefore, if you have a lot of money in the bank, you shouldn't get food stamps until you've expended that. That was the general principle. I think, illegally, those asset tests were removed and so that basically you can get into the food stamp program now with $100,000 sitting in the bank.

  • 10:46:19

    RECTORThat's not the way the program was supposed to work. And one of the things that this bill does is go back and restore those asset tests, which never should have been taken away. And that will save the taxpayers some money. And I think that that's probably a good idea. Again, if people are working, they're not going to be bothered by the work requirement.

  • 10:46:39

    RECTORIf people are consistently looking for a job, there's no problem there. OK? The problem is if an individual isn't doing that, we're going to ask them to step up, over time -- not next month, but over time -- to step and try to work to improve themselves. And I think they'll respond positively for the most part.

  • 10:46:59

    ROBERTSLet's turn to Patrick in Upper Peninsula, Mich. Patrick, welcome. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 10:47:05

    PATRICKOh, good morning.

  • 10:47:06

    ROBERTSGood morning, sir.

  • 10:47:08

    PATRICKWell, I was a nurse, and I was a surveyor. I drew maps, photogrammetry and all that jazz. And then I developed -- I got brain cancer. And now, between medical bills and -- I get $100 in food stamps, which I'm grateful for, but, boy, 100 bucks, it doesn't last all month, for sure. And, you know, it's very frustrating because I've paid taxes. I've done whatever -- I've worked my whole life, from newspapers -- I'm 50 now, you know.

  • 10:47:53

    PATRICKI've done things. And now, like, 100 bucks, it's not much. Boy, I mean, milk, couple pieces of meat and stuff like that, and, like, with all the things, I mean, having cancer, you got the cancer on your shoulders. You've got the unemployment on your shoulders. You've got bills on your shoulders. And now, you know, the politicians are talking about, you know, ending it. I mean, there's fancy words for ending it. They're -- I can't even speak -- minimizing it. And I'm like, man, why? I mean, it's food, for God's sake.

  • 10:48:43

    ROBERTSPatrick, thanks very much for your call. Jim Weill, one of the dimensions of this subject is the emotional toll. Hunger is not just a physical condition. As we're listening to Patrick, it's also a source of great emotional stress.

  • 10:48:59

    WEILLAbsolutely. Mr. Rector says that fewer children than adults suffer from outright hunger. That's 'cause the parents are skipping meals to feed the kids. And the parent -- you know, all the studies showed the huge stress on low income parents who are struggling to put food on the table, who are struggling to work, who are struggling to raise their kids.

  • 10:49:20

    WEILLAnd we have in the House of Representatives this callous and immoral conversation about abstractions that are totally divorced from the realities of American people's lives. At the end of this recession when wages are lower than they used to be, the minimum wage is depressed, people are struggling to find jobs, and the House and, frankly, Mr. Rector are living in a fantasy land. And the conversation is totally abstract and unrelated to people's lives.

  • 10:49:54

    ROBERTSLet me read an email -- gives another point of here -- from our website. "What was once sold as a program to help the poor has become just another in a long list of middle class welfare handouts to buy votes. It's sickening, unsustainable, and fueled by corruption. And anyone with an ounce of honesty will admit that." Tamara Keith, do you hear this out there as well?

  • 10:50:18

    KEITHOh, absolutely. I mean, that it one of the arguments that you hear. I think that, in some ways, Mr. Rector has made that argument in much nicer terms. But that the argument being that this is part of many programs for people that lead to dependency, I'm not personally making that argument. That is an argument that is being made in the halls of Congress and out there.

  • 10:50:50

    KEITHThere are other people who are making very different arguments, that, frankly, most people who are on food stamps who are receiving this assistance do not want it. Also, people will say this is not a cash handout. This is food. You're giving people food, which they can't do much with other than, like, eat it and sustain themselves. And so -- and the other argument that I hear out there, which is unrelated to politics, is that, actually, it's sort of an economic argument that the food stamps, that money goes directly to retailers.

  • 10:51:33

    KEITHMajor retailers in this country are -- have been advocating against some of these cuts for the very reason that it's good business for them. I mean, this is the reason that it's part of the Farm Bill is that it's -- they buy agricultural products. People who need food buy agricultural products from retailers in America. It's sort of this virtuous circle economically.

  • 10:51:59

    ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's turn to Marnie from Fort Worth, Texas. Marnie, welcome. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 10:52:08

    MARNIEHi. Thanks for taking my call. I just had a quick question. Your panel hasn't really talked about the connection to the drug testing and the SNAP program. It seems to me that -- they're doing that down here in Texas, and it -- I know we have a huge drug problem in our country, and I've got family members that's got that problem themself. But tying to food, it just seems to be another way to control people rather than really help them at their situation.

  • 10:52:30

    ROBERTSMarnie, thanks for your call. Robert Rector, you -- this is an issue you have written a lot about in connecting eligibility to drug testing. Please answer Marnie and others who talk about that.

  • 10:52:40

    RECTORThere was just a study in Utah that came out this week that showed that drug testing welfare recipients saves about $10 for every dollar it costs. Also, we have -- we know that basically putting drug testing and drug limits on the job training programs and other things like that improve the performance. I don't believe that anyone who's asking for the taxpayer to pay for them and to feed them should be spending money on drugs.

  • 10:53:08

    RECTORI think that, by putting that requirement on -- which is similar to what we have in most places with respect to Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, (sic) again, it's an irony that this program with all these single, able-bodied people is far more lenient than the program for single mothers with 2-year-old kids in the country. I think that those things, in fact, are fair to the taxpayer and help to move the person towards self-sufficiency. I also think...

  • 10:53:34

    ROBERTS(word?)...

  • 10:53:36

    RECTOR...it's very important not to talk about food stamps in isolation. That individual who called earlier, it's very traumatic to even to listen to him. But I think it's important to realize that he certainly ought to be getting a lot more than food stamps. He should be getting Social -- supplemental security income or Social Security, Medicaid. All kinds -- there are 80 different programs to aid the poor. And food stamps can't be talked about in isolation.

  • 10:54:01

    ROBERTSJim Weill, your view about the issue of drug testing as part of a eligibility requirement?

  • 10:54:09

    WEILLWell, it saves money 'cause it throws people out of the program or keeps them from applying. You know, it's a way to stigmatize poor people. The eminence is that poor people don't have drug abuse rates higher than the middle class. But putting a drug testing rule in poor people's programs -- you know, we don't have it to be in Congress. We don't have it for Social Security. It's just a way to narrow the program, drive people out, create the impression that -- the wrong impression that there are more drug abusers among the poor and stigmatize poor people in the programs.

  • 10:54:47

    ROBERTSNow, let me ask you about the outlook here. Tamara, you've been covering this. We now have a situation, very different bills formulated in the Senate, in the House. What is the legislative outlook as best you can tell?

  • 10:55:01

    KEITHWell, if we listen to "Schoolhouse Rock," then the next step would be a conference committee. That is sort of a big if, the conference committee being the place where the Senate version and the House version would come together. And presumably those $40 billion in cuts would get mixed with the $4 billion in cuts, and you'd get a much lower number. From there, you don't know what happens because it's unclear whether the House would actually be able to pass a lower number than that 40 billion.

  • 10:55:28

    KEITHBut the other question is whether they ever even get to a conference because what will have to happen on the House side is what should be a quick procedural vote -- or at least that's what the chairman of the Agriculture Committee says it would be is a quick procedural vote to combine the Farm Bill part of the Farm Bill and the food stamp part of the Farm Bill and then send that over to the Senate for conference. There is a big question as to whether that -- even that little procedural hurdle will be able to -- to be able to happen.

  • 10:55:57

    ROBERTSRobert Rector, from your connections to House Republicans you've been talking to, what's your best guess as where this is going?

  • 10:56:04

    RECTORThe food stamp program is the second largest means tested welfare program in the country. It has nothing to do with farms. It doesn't belong in the Agriculture Department. They can't run it competently. It should be separated from farms. It doesn't have anything to do with cows and corn. It should be placed over in HHS and should be treated as a separate program over by people who actually know something about assisting poor people rather than growing hogs and cattle.

  • 10:56:31

    ROBERTSLast word, Jim Weill, what's your best estimate about the outlook here, quickly?

  • 10:56:36

    WEILLOh, well, we have a Democratic president. We have a Democratic Senate. And we have a relatively slim Republican majority in the House. If there's going to be a food stamp bill, it's going to be much better than this one. But it needs to be hugely better than this House bill. And I'm not sure there's going to be a SNAP Bill or a Farm Bill this year.

  • 10:57:03

    ROBERTSThat is Jim Weill. He's with the Food Research and Action Center. Tamara Keith of NPR has been with me, and Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane. She's out in California. She's going to be appearing in a benefit production benefitting Alzheimer's research, and she is going to be back in this chair next Monday. Thanks so much for spending an hour of your time with us in our first hour in the new studios on Connecticut Avenue.

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