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Opinion | Garret Graves Wants To Treat Families On Food Stamps Like Felons On Probation

Ever since Ronald Reagan decried “welfare queens driving Cadillacs,” Republicans have used public assistance as a dog whistle to their white voters, roughly meaning “lazy black freeloaders.”

On June 26th, Congressman Garret Graves, a Republican from Louisiana’s 6th Congressional District, announced the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Reform Act of 2017, a bill which seeks to introduce work requirements for certain adults, and remove exemptions from those requirements for others, in order to receive SNAP benefits (more commonly known as food stamps).

Put simply, Graves proposes treating families who rely on food stamps like convicted felons on probation.

While Graves, in a press release, claims that this bill will both “protect resources” and “get capable people off the sidelines and involved in building America’s future,” the likelihood it will do either seems scant.

This program will obviously need agents to monitor it and verify that recipients are sufficiently seeking a job, creating more unnecessary bureaucracy and wasting precious public dollars.

If the goal is to help people on food stamps find jobs, why not spend this money on job training programs, instead of on giving more hoops for our most destitute to jump through to get the help they need, and punishing them if they can’t do it?

This comes back to what “food stamp fraud” and “welfare reform” are really about: race.

Ever since Ronald Reagan decried the myth of “welfare queens driving Cadillacs,” Republicans have used public assistance as a dog whistle to their white voters, roughly meaning “lazy black freeloaders.” These programs have been under attack by the Republican Party ever since, despite the fact that they do genuine good for struggling individuals and families.

Bills that cut these programs or make their benefits more difficult to receive are always based in some premise that there is a group of people– almost always black, but occasionally this issue is used to scapegoat immigrants as well– who are unfairly receiving benefits they don’t deserve, and that this bill will stop that from happening.

Graves’ reasoning is as faulty as it is disingenuous. From his press release: “There are talented people across our country who aren’t pursuing the full potential of their capabilities largely because government incentives make it more profitable in some cases to stay home and collect welfare than to pursue personal growth and responsibility through work.” 

The idea that people can only pursue “personal growth and responsibility through work” is fallacious; anyone who’s ever read a book or cared for a child or a sick relative disproves that. What’s more, by and large people want to work, want to do something they have pride in, and want to contribute to their communities. When Graves says in his press release, “It’s become a lifestyle for some to actively choose government assistance over work,” it’s another dog whistle: White conservatives take a kind of perverse and ignorant pride in their work and in their value as members of society. They would only take public assistance if they absolutely needed it.

But for others, it’s a lifestyle to actively choose not to. This plays into the idea that the poor and needy have morally failed somehow, that they choose their poverty– and therefore, it’s fair to disdain them, shun them, and make their lives more difficult by adding onerous requirements such as this one. (It’s no coincidence that the bill introduces requirements for SNAP recipients similar to probation: These requirements reflect a conservative belief that being poor is a moral failing that shows someone to be untrustworthy and of low character.)

This isn’t serious legislation. It is cruelty marketed as conservatism, Changes to federal law as part of the welfare reform of 1996 already prohibit anyone able-bodied, age 18-49, and with no dependents– the same people targeted in Graves’ bill– from receiving this benefit for longer than three months at a time.

Even if someone was deliberately avoiding work they were offered in order to exploit this program, they wouldn’t be able to do so for very long. This leads into another major problem with the bill: The food stamp fraud it claims to tackle simply doesn’t exist.

According to a 2013 USDA report cited in The New York Times, only 1.3% of food stamp funds were illegally traded on the black market, where EBT funds can be traded for cash or other commodities. Not only is this a much smaller percentage of fraud than any other federal program– the GAO estimates that the fraud rate of Medicare and Medicaid is around 10%, for example— but, as the Times article describes, these funds are often traded for gas, money for an electric bill, or other necessities which aren’t food. This market arises not out of corruption but out of necessity.

In his press release, Graves cites a similar program in Alabama which led to an 85% reduction in food stamp participation in 13 counties where the work requirements were instituted. Graves touts “common sense” in the headline of his press release; common sense tells me that a drop of 85% should not be cause for celebration. It should be concerning.

It is highly unlikely that the program was 85% populated by people who were capable of working jobs and chose not to– despite what Graves and others might have you believe. It is far more likely the drop is due to a combination of an improved economy offering more work opportunities, the difficulties involved in meeting the requirements preventing people who need those benefits from receiving them, or simply, the three-month federal limitation having run its course on many of the recipients.

Graves also cites “one of those counties [where] the jobless rate was down 11 points in April 2017 compared to April 2011.” From an article from AL.com which uses similar language, that county appears to be Wilcox County, which saw a drop in unemployment rate from 23.5% in April 2011 to 11.7% in April 2017.

What the article and Graves’ press release fail to mention, though, is that this employment trend reflects that of the United States in general. Unemployment in Wilcox County peaked in February 2010, at 31.0%. Nationally, following the financial crisis, unemployment peaked one month sooner at 10.6%. At the time of the bill, April 2011, the unemployment rate in Wilcox County was 23.5%; nationally, it was 8.7%. In April 2017, when Wilcox County’s unemployment rate had dropped to 11.7%, national unemployment was at 4.1%.

In other words, the unemployment rate in Wilcox County peaked at almost three times the national average in early 2010, was almost three times the national average in April 2011, and then fell… to almost three times the national average in April 2017. The drop in unemployment in Wilcox County is tied to the national trend more than any effects of this bill.

People on food stamps are not living lives of luxury; these are already the poorest, most vulnerable, and most marginalized in our society. Making their lives even more miserable, stressful, and burdensome doesn’t solve the bigger problem, which is that too many jobs don’t pay a living wage or provide the kind of benefits people need to really live.

Even at best, this bill will make life more difficult for the 96% of people who use their benefits honestly, in order to catch the 4%– and, as we’ve seen with similar programs (such as drug testing for welfare recipients), the cost of implementing the oversight is often greater than the fraud it seeks to stop.

This bill will serve no more function other than to waste resources and make the process of receiving government aid to buy food a little more difficult and a little more humiliating. It’s a bill that judges the poor, finds them morally wanting, and punishes them.

Shame on Garret Graves for spending his time on a mean-spirited performative gesture rather than a real solution.

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