Fight Over Food Stamps Has Many Complexities

Torri Christian is an anti-hunger advocate in Oklahoma. This photo was taken by Jerry Hagstrom in September 2013.  
National Journal
Jerry Hagstrom
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Jerry Hagstrom
Sept. 22, 2013, 5:47 a.m.

OK­LAHOMA CITY — Why did all but 15 Re­pub­lic­ans de­cide last week that they could vote for a $39 bil­lion cut to food stamps over the next 10 years even though par­ti­cip­a­tion in the pro­gram has gone up dur­ing the re­ces­sion?

The ex­per­i­ence of Torri Chris­ti­an, dir­ect­or of ad­vocacy and policy for the Re­gion­al Food Bank of Ok­lahoma and the Com­munity Food Bank for East­ern Ok­lahoma, goes a long way in ex­plain­ing why sup­port for food stamps in low-in­come South­ern states is so low among their Re­pub­lic­an politi­cians.

On Thursday the House passed a bill that would cut $39 bil­lion from the food stamp pro­gram, of­fi­cially known as the Sup­ple­ment­al Nu­tri­tion As­sist­ance Pro­gram, or SNAP. This week that bill is ex­pec­ted to be mar­ried to the farm-pro­gram bill the House passed in June and sent to the Sen­ate to be­gin a con­fer­ence on a com­pre­hens­ive farm bill.

The vote was 217-210. All House Demo­crats voted against it, but only 15 Re­pub­lic­ans joined them in op­pos­i­tion. They in­cluded four from New York, two each from Cali­for­nia, New Jer­sey, and Pennsylvania, and one each from Alaska, Neb­raska, North Car­o­lina, Vir­gin­ia, and West Vir­gin­ia.

The five-mem­ber Ok­lahoma del­eg­a­tion, all Re­pub­lic­ans, voted for the bill, in­clud­ing House Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee Chair­man Frank Lu­cas, who last year pro­posed only a $16.5 bil­lion cut and this year a $20.5 bil­lion cut in SNAP.

Ok­lahoma was one of the 40-some states that re­ques­ted waivers from the Ag­ri­cul­ture De­part­ment to make it easi­er for people to qual­i­fy for food stamps, but this year the Le­gis­lature passed and the gov­ernor signed a law for­bid­ding the state gov­ern­ment from ask­ing for an­oth­er waiver to al­low a cat­egory of be­ne­fi­ciar­ies known as “able-bod­ied adults without de­pend­ents” (ABAWDs) to get be­ne­fits for more than the fed­er­ally al­lowed three months out of every three years.

“Ok­lahoma has this un­der­ly­ing cul­ture of self-suf­fi­ciency that is prob­ably the main thing that Ok­laho­mans pride them­selves in,” Chris­ti­an said in an in­ter­view earli­er this month. “Loudly ad­voc­at­ing for the safety net is not the easi­est thing to do in Ok­lahoma.”

Chris­ti­an said that she and her col­leagues spent much of the early part of the year try­ing to tone down the ef­fort in the state Le­gis­lature to stop the ABAWDs from get­ting more be­ne­fits. Ok­lahoma le­gis­lat­ors ini­tially wanted to re­quire that the be­ne­fi­ciar­ies work more hours than the fed­er­al law re­quires and had to be in­formed that they could not go bey­ond fed­er­al law, Chris­ti­an said. The ban on ABAWD waivers passed, but Chris­ti­an said an­ti­hun­ger ad­voc­ates man­aged to stop oth­er pro­pos­als, in­clud­ing one on as­set tests that would have made it par­tic­u­larly hard for seni­or cit­izens to get food stamps.

With these state-level battles a high pri­or­ity, the de­bate in Wash­ing­ton over food stamps seemed far away, but Chris­ti­an said she does travel to Wash­ing­ton about once a quarter and had made it clear to Lu­cas that there are still many needy people in Ok­lahoma. (Per­haps that’s why Lu­cas in an in­ter­view said he heard more about food stamps from ad­voc­ates in Wash­ing­ton than at home.) Lu­cas, she said, vis­ited food banks in 2011 and has been sup­port­ive of SNAP. “He is aware that its be­ne­fits are im­port­ant for fam­il­ies stay­ing to­geth­er,” Chris­ti­an said. “He is not one to buy in­to any rhet­or­ic.”

But she said it has been harder to get Lu­cas’s staff to agree to meet­ings since he has been un­der so much pres­sure to cut make a big cut to food stamps. Chris­ti­an said she does not blame Lu­cas for agree­ing to the cuts, par­tic­u­larly since it is part of a path to­ward a new farm bill.

Last year, when Lu­cas pro­posed a $16.5 bil­lion cut to food stamps over 10 years, the Ok­lahoma food banks re­mained si­lent while na­tion­al an­ti­hun­ger groups such as the Food Re­search and Ac­tion Cen­ter called for no cuts to food stamps. “We did not say a thing,” Chris­ti­an said. “We knew that no cuts was un­real­ist­ic.” Na­tion­al hun­ger groups “are try­ing to keep their mes­sage con­sist­ent,” she ad­ded, “but it is not pro­duct­ive when they are not work­ing with the real­ity.”

Chris­ti­an and her col­leagues have also tried ap­proach­ing more re­cently elec­ted Ok­lahoma Re­pub­lic­ans. Rep. Jim Briden­stine, who rep­res­ents Tulsa, has vis­ited food banks, she said, but when it comes to dis­cuss­ing hun­ger he “gets in­to very the­or­et­ic­al con­ver­sa­tions. He is very liber­tari­an.”

The ad­voc­ates have also talked to Rep. Mark­wayne Mul­lin, who rep­res­ents the poorest part of the state, but with him the con­ver­sa­tion must start with “why need ex­ists in the com­munity,” not with the need to main­tain SNAP be­ne­fit and eli­gib­il­ity levels, she said.

Lob­by­ing to main­tain SNAP presents spe­cial chal­lenges for food-bank lead­ers, she said. They real­ize that low-in­come people get most of their food through SNAP and use the food banks as a backup, and that if SNAP be­ne­fits are cut people will have to come to food banks earli­er in the month.

“We do pub­licly sup­port SNAP not just be­cause we can’t do more, but if we want to end hun­ger we have to ad­voc­ate for safety nets,” she said.

But the first pri­or­ity for the Ok­lahoma food banks, which are part of the Feed­ing Amer­ica net­work, has to be ac­quir­ing and dis­trib­ut­ing food. “This is food in, food out,” she said.

The Ok­lahoma food banks get between 10 and 20 per­cent of their dona­tions from the Emer­gency Food As­sist­ance Pro­gram, or TE­FAP, which is run by the Ag­ri­cul­ture De­part­ment. Com­mod­ity-dis­tri­bu­tion pro­grams are more pop­u­lar with Re­pub­lic­ans than SNAP, and the House bill that cut food stamps con­tains a big­ger in­crease for TE­FAP than the Sen­ate-passed farm bill.

But Chris­ti­an noted that her food banks have to get the oth­er 80 to 90 per­cent from dona­tions of food or money. That means spend­ing a lot of time on food drives and fun­drais­ing, but also deal­ing with the fact that some donors are very con­ser­vat­ive and might not like a com­bat­ive cam­paign against SNAP cuts.

One of the oddest things about the cur­rent battle over food stamps is that, while farm groups op­posed split­ting the farm bill in two, food com­pan­ies and re­tail­ers that take in the SNAP money through elec­tron­ic be­ne­fit-trans­fer cards have been si­lent ex­cept for their sup­port of the Food Re­search and Ac­tion Cen­ter and oth­er an­ti­hun­ger groups. Chris­ti­an said the Ok­lahoma an­ti­hun­ger lead­ers have ex­plored the idea of loc­al re­tail­ers writ­ing an op-ed art­icle point­ing out that SNAP is im­port­ant to their bot­tom line, but “the eco­nom­ic stim­u­lus ar­gu­ment back­fires in a way” and there are fears people may ask, “Are you try­ing to help the needy, or what are you try­ing to pull here?”

The Ok­lahoma ex­per­i­ence seems to sig­nal that cam­paign­ing to main­tain SNAP be­ne­fits is more com­plic­ated and dif­fi­cult than it might ap­pear.

When Lu­cas held town-hall meet­ings in Ponca City and Black­well on Sept. 5, there were no SNAP be­ne­fi­ciar­ies or an­ti­hun­ger ad­voc­ates to urge him not to cut food for the needy.

“People work­ing three jobs are not go­ing to make it to a town-hall meet­ing on a Thursday,” Chris­ti­an said. “People strug­gling just day to day to get by don’t have the time and the agen­cies serving them don’t have the time. They are tapped out emo­tion­ally. That is why there is such a frac­tured net­work for safety nets.”

The Ok­lahoma food banks pub­licly op­posed the $39 bil­lion cut and said af­ter­ward that they “look for­ward to col­lab­or­at­ing fur­ther with our law­makers in the con­fer­ence com­mit­tee pro­cess to min­im­ize neg­at­ive im­pacts for the fam­il­ies we serve.”

The Sen­ate bill con­tains only a $4 bil­lion cut, and an­ti­hun­ger ad­voc­ates ex­pect the Sen­ate and Pres­id­ent Obama to op­pose a deep cut. But the $39 bil­lion House cut is now on the table, and the pres­sure is on to fi­nal­ize a farm bill that can be passed in the House.

Na­tion­al an­ti­hun­ger groups and Demo­crats ar­gue that there has long been bi­par­tis­an sup­port for SNAP and the feed­ing pro­grams. But when Demo­crats ar­gued on the House floor against the cuts they used the ex­amples of an op-ed writ­ten by former Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­ers Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Bob Dole, R-Kan., and Sen­ate Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee rank­ing mem­ber Thad Co­chran, R-Miss. But Daschle and Dole have been re­tired for a long time and there are ques­tions about wheth­er Co­chran will run again.

An­ti­hun­ger groups in the more lib­er­al states have no prob­lem put­ting pres­sure on Demo­crats to de­fend food stamps. But that’s preach­ing to the choir. Per­haps what has happened in Ok­lahoma will be a wake-up call to the na­tion­al an­ti­hun­ger groups to provide some kind of as­sist­ance to an­ti­hun­ger groups in states that have elec­ted a new gen­er­a­tion of Re­pub­lic­an politi­cians. If something doesn’t hap­pen to con­vince them they need to sup­port SNAP, con­ser­vat­ives may suc­ceed in their cam­paign to gut both it and the farm pro­gram.

In a fol­low-up email, Chris­ti­an noted that she had met with Lu­cas in 2012 and with Lu­cas’s staff in 2013 and said the food banks “have con­tin­ued a strong, part­ner­ship-minded re­la­tion­ship with his loc­al and na­tion­al staffers.” She also said that even though Ok­lahoma food banks re­mained si­lent on the pro­posed $16.5 bil­lion cut to food stamps that Lu­cas pro­posed in 2012, “Ok­lahoma’s food banks agree with Feed­ing Amer­ica that any cuts to SNAP in the U.S. farm bill will be harm­ful for mil­lions of hungry Amer­ic­ans.” Chris­ti­an also said that Ok­lahoma’s food banks “ap­pre­ci­ate the time Con­gress­man Briden­stine has spent thus far tour­ing our fa­cil­it­ies and learn­ing about our work. We look for­ward to build­ing our re­la­tion­ship with his of­fice in the fu­ture for the bet­ter­ment of fam­il­ies we serve.”

Con­trib­ut­ing Ed­it­or Jerry Hag­strom is the founder and ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of The Hag­strom Re­port, which may be found at www.Hag­strom­Re­port.com.
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