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July 23, 2013

Minimum wage, food stamps have their place

By Cary Brunswick
The Daily Star

---- — Actions by congressional Republicans this year show they apparently have declared an all-out war against low-income citizens and the poor.

The poor, it seems, have more of a right to have guns than decent meals each day.

A few weeks ago, the Republican-led House cut the national food stamp program from its new farm bill, setting up a fight sometime soon over what our government should be doing to help those who can’t afford to adequately feed their children or themselves.

And given the disdain the GOP has for those less fortunate, the prospects are not good. The poor, for many well-off Republicans, are just lazy moochers, as some lawmakers obviously agree with Mitt Romney’s assessment of the 47 percent of people who would never vote for him.

There may be some merit to severing food stamps from farm bills, since linking them was a political move back in the 1970s to gain urban lawmaker support for agricultural programs. The motive for the recent House action, however, was primarily to pursue cuts in food aid for the poor.

Lawmakers are so alienated from real-life situations that they don’t realize abusers of the program make up just a small fraction of those receiving food stamps. 

In April, more than 47 million people from 23 million households were beneficiaries. Nearly 50 percent are children, 30 percent are working poor who don’t earn enough to pay all their bills, and about a fifth are senior citizens or disabled. The average benefit is about $130 a month for an individual and around $270 for a household.

What irks the Republicans, especially those with Tea Party backing, is that the cost for the program, officially the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, has doubled, understandably, since the economy crashed five years ago. Now, about one in seven Americans benefit. 

The trend has been the same in local counties, with the number of food stamp recipients jumping by thousands since the 2008 recession hit. Moochers? No; primarily people losing their jobs or forced to go part-time, who need help putting meals on their tables for their families.

Now that the food program has been divorced from the farm bill and will stand by itself, many fear Republicans will try to slash its budget by tinkering with eligibility rules. Knocking people off the program, after all, may force them to go hungry, but could save a lot of money.

Rep. Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat who has long championed food aid for the poor, told the Associated Press that “there are some Republicans who think this is their moment to end this program as we know it, and the question is will they succeed or not.”

Of course, these are the same Republicans who could have helped many people get off food stamps by agreeing to an increase in the minimum wage. In March, the House GOP unanimously voted down a proposal to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.

President Obama has called for an increase to $9 an hour from the current federal rate of $7.25, which took effect four years ago. A recent proposal by House Democrats would phase-in the $10.10 rate by 2016 and then links it to inflation.

The chances of that measure getting through House Republicans are slim at best, since they would rather see the poor go hungry than help them earn enough money to feed themselves.

As is often the case these days, Republicans are finding themselves on the least popular side of an issue. A recent USA Today/Pew Research Center poll found that 71 percent of Americans supported the president’s call for raising the minimum wage.

And studies have shown that the common arguments against a hike in the minimum wage — that it hurts workers, retailers and the economy — just don’t hold up.

The report in 2012 by Demos, a non-partisan public policy center, concluded that a major increase in the minimum wage would lower the poverty rate, boost the GDP, create jobs, increase retail business and only cost retailers about 1 percent of total sales revenue.

Until Republicans agree to a more-living wage, they shouldn’t even be toying with the idea of throwing millions of people off food stamps. Not only would it be political suicide, it would hurt people already barely getting by.

Cary Brunswick, of Oneonta, is a freelance writer and editor. He can be reached at brunswick@earthling.net. The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of The Daily Star and its editorial board.