“America’s Harvest Box” Captures the Trumpian Attitude Toward Poverty

“America’s Harvest Box” Captures the Trumpian Attitude Toward Poverty

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On Monday, the Trump Administration rolled out a budget that would dramatically alter the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance
Program—also known as SNAP, or, more colloquially, food stamps—which
helps protect almost one-sixth of the American population from falling
into hunger. There’s a good chance that the proposed changes to SNAP,
like so many of the proposals contained in this budget, will end up in
the congressional garbage can. But policymakers should be aware of the
damage they stand to do—and of the window they offer into this
Administration’s view of poverty and the poor.

Currently, SNAP benefits are delivered in the form of cash added to an
electronic benefit-transfer (E.B.T.) card, and they’re spendable at
almost any store that sells food. The Department of Agriculture wants to
dock about half of that money and replace it with an “America’s Harvest box,” consisting of “100 percent U.S.-grown and produced food.” Not freshly
harvested fruits and vegetables or meat, mind you, but processed
“American” food in cans, tins, and jars. The Department suggests that
the plan would encourage healthier eating habits and save taxpayer
money, even though the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates
that ninety-three per cent of food-stamp dollars are spent on food for
beneficiaries (making it one of the least wasteful federal
bureaucracies) and, as the U.S.D.A. spokesman Tim Murtaugh admitted,
to Politico, “The projected savings does not include shipping
door-to-door for all recipients.”

The new budget, which seeks to cut the SNAP budget by about two hundred and thirteen billion dollars over ten
years,
would also impose ever-more-stringent work requirements for able-bodied
food-stamp recipients, even though many of them already work; SNAP has effectively subsidized the low pay offered by large corporations such as Walmart in recent
decades. Since most of those who are able-bodied and on food stamps are
already restricted to about three months of benefits, the
Administration’s focus on work requirements—and on increasing the age
limit of those who would be subjected to those requirements—can be read
as grandstanding to score political points with its conservative base.

The “Harvest Box” proposal, though, is a new kind of horrendous. (Mick
Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, called it
a “Blue Apron–type program.”) How, exactly, will this
Administration—which recently contracted with a desperately inept company to deliver millions of pre-made meals to Puerto Ricans after Hurricane
Maria, only to withdraw the contract after almost none of the meals were
delivered—actually get these boxes of food to millions of households? Or
to recipients who move frequently, or end up temporarily homeless? What
if the food is stolen or delayed? How will the box cater to the dietary
needs and allergies of all the recipients? Or children’s finicky eating
habits? Or simply to the fact that adults like to be treated like
adults, which means having an element of choice—one might even say of
personal responsibility—when making economic decisions, such as the ones
bound up in grocery shopping? (The Atlantic’s Annie Lowrey posted an invaluable Twitter thread on Tuesday that listed many of these questions, among others.)

Federal food assistance dates back to the Great Depression, when the
government began distributing surplus agricultural produce to the poor
as a way to shore up farmers’ income. What became the food-stamp system
expanded under the Great Society; both of the major political parties
embraced it. SNAP, even in its weakened current state,
is among the most successful parts of the social safety net; after
unemployment insurance, it is the single program most responsive to
economic downturn, rapidly enrolling recipients and distributing
assistance when people lose jobs and income. The Trump Administration’s
reimagining of SNAP reduces food assistance to a humiliation ritual:
recipients would take whatever they are given, in whatever condition
they are given it, and would be expected to feel gratitude.

Proponents of this package of change might argue that it is necessary to
control ballooning federal deficits in the wake of massive tax cuts. Yet SNAP has never represented more than 0.5 per cent of the country’s
G.D.P. And, even before the Trump budget was released, the Congressional
Budget Office had estimated that that number would fall, to about 0.25
per cent of G.D.P., over the coming decade. There are few federal
programs that deliver such bang for their buck—SNAP is the single
biggest reason why malnutrition has largely vanished from the United
States. Trump’s “reform” package would reverse these achievements,
ratcheting up the country’s misery index like few other public-policy
changes of the past century. And, even if the proposal is just a
fantasy, how telling it is that America’s leaders fantasize in such
detail about punishing the poor for being poor.

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February 14, 2018 at 04:57PM

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