On Friday, in a move that shocked, truly shocked America, President Obama said that food stamps were more important than Defense. Since this sort of prioritization is one of the fundamental differences between the US extreme right (aka Republicans) and the US center-right (also known as the Democrats), the fact that this caused an uproar among Republicans should also stun you. Republicans warn us that slashing America’s defense budget until it is only double the next largest nations will cripple us, Democrats call the Republicans meanies, and everyone ignores the point.
The point is that food stamps are more important than Defense, for a fundamental reason – it is because we subsidize food stamps that we aren’t having food riots like the middle east. Without food stamps, poor Americans would be starving – period. This is both bad for America’s public image, but even worse for its civil function, and for its much articulated claims that we are, in fact, getting better rather than worse. Only because of food stamps and related programs can such claims seem even superficially credible.
Let’s run the numbers. One in seven households in America receives food stamps, and one in six would qualify. Nearly 1/2 of all American children live in households that receive food stamps. One in eight food stamp households cares for an elder, one in five cares for a disabled non-elderly adult. One out of every five recipient households has *no* other countable income – more than 7 million Americans total.
Cancel food stamps and 7 million Americans drop to zero income. More than 2/3 of those households include children. The average food stamp recipient household owns $101 of goods and savings – total.
Food stamps also have other effects. They are the social program that is most beneficial to the overall economy, because the subsidies are spent immediately. They act as a subsidy to the larger food system – and in fact, when one out of seven Americans requires food stamps to feed their family, they act as an overall subsidy on our food system. Just like many poor nations, we are subsidizing food for a population that cannot afford it otherwise.
Given that food represents a tiny portion of most household incomes – between 10 and 12 percent – the fact that Americans cannot afford food in large numbers is significant. Much of this is attributable to the fact that medical care and food are often the only “fungible” expenses in a low income household. Cutting back on food and medicine are the only ways to get by when an unexpected expense arises. It gives us a measure of the costs of all our supposed previous “growth” – low income Americans can’t afford housing *and* food, and almost no one can afford medical care.
Fundamentally, America subsidizes food for precisely the same reasons other nations do – not merely because it is the moral choice, but because it keeps us out of the streets. If Republicans don’t know this yet, they’ll certainly find out.