Carrying On: Waging war on the poor

March 20, 2014

“Do you know how fabulous I’d look? I’d be so skinny!” When the co-host of “The Five” on Fox News, Andrea Tantaros, beamed at the camera and bragged about how many pounds she could lose, she wasn’t talking about starting some new fad diet. She was talking about living off of food stamps.

Rather than apologiz to people who actually struggle with hunger and poverty, Tantaros decided to defend herself on Twitter. “It’s amazing how stupid & humorless some liberals can be,” she wrote. This episode erupted in November, when Newark Mayor Cory Booker took the SNAP challenge to raise awareness for the roughly 46 million Americans struggling with food insecurity. Yet five months after Tantaros’ comments, conservatives still treat vital food assistance programs as some sort of joke.

I refuse to laugh, because the political discourse surrounding food assistance programs is more than frustrating—it’s misguided and painfully ignorant, if not simply compassionless. When Paul Ryan gave a speech early this month at CPAC, he warned conservatives that the left misunderstands the needs of the poor. In opposition to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, he said, “What they’re offering people is a full stomach and an empty soul.”

Ryan followed up this comment with a story-turned-parable about a young boy who yearned for a paper bag lunch rather than an impersonal one funded by government programs. But the story, it turns out, was just that—although Ryan presented it as true, the boy and his brown paper bag come from the 2011 book The Invisible Thread. In fact, the book’s author, Laura Schroff, works with No Kid Hungry, a group that aims to end childhood hunger in large part by supporting programs like federally-funded school lunches.

The media swiftly zeroed in on the irony of Ryan’s gaffe. But we should forget it. Even if his speechwriters had caught the falsehood before he spoke, Ryan’s words would have carried the same message. And that message proves far more enraging than a plagiarized story spun for political effect. Ryan and other conservatives believe that “the poor”—as though all struggling Americans are some one-dimensional damsel in distress—need moral saving rather than a tangible safety net.

While families anxiously budget and make difficult decisions about nutrition, Republicans refuse to support material help unless their recipients possess spotless souls. In a New York Times op-ed this month, columnist Nicholas Kristof dug to the root of such thinking. Some Americans tend “to confuse economic difficulties with moral failures, to muddle financial lapses with ethical ones,” he wrote. The narratives we use to talk about poverty and government assistance in the United States shame and silence those most in need. Instead of hearing the stories of those who benefit from food assistance, perspectives like Tantaros’ and Ryan’s dominate the debate over funding SNAP and similar programs.

Even on the left, we’re more likely to hear about government assistance from politicians taking “the SNAP challenge” than from parents who actually use SNAP to make sure their children don’t go hungry. Of course, elected representatives can raise awareness by blogging about their week of eating on a $33 budget. The millions of Americans who eat on that very real budget for months simply can’t garner the same attention.

Still, the SNAP challenge makes me uneasy. It doesn’t simulate the anxiety that comes along with poverty. It doesn’t carry the same shame that society places on recipients of government assistance. It lasts only a week. Rep. Steve Stockman’s (R-Texas) communications director took the challenge and gleefully proclaimed that he was “beating” it, as though poverty were some sort of game. But taking the challenge comes nowhere close to the reality of living on food assistance, not to say that there is a uniform experience of economic hardship. Today, over 40 million Americans receive nutritional benefits from the government—45 percent of them children—and each of those people has a different story, a story that’s being drowned out by the GOP’s moral parables and Fox’s sensationalism.

Now that Ryan has given us a fake story, here’s a real one: When my dad went to jail and my mom found herself suddenly supporting my brothers and me on her own, she got help from SNAP to feed us while she looked for a job. Today, she works harder than anyone I know to make sure my brothers and I get the best educations possible. But SNAP isn’t just for drastic cases of parents landing in prison. It’s for acute times of need when people get laid off, and it’s for families who work hard but still can’t make ends meet. It’s a safety net, and it’s saved a lot of people. I shudder when conservatives try to slash food assistance, because they’re not concerned with fighting the war on poverty—they want to wage a war against the poor.

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