Ron Formisano: Congress punishing the poor while subsidizing the wealthy

January 8, 2014 

So the Republican Grinches in Congress (and some Democrats) went home to happy holidays after refusing to renew federal jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed. Soon Congress will impose further cuts on SNAP — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or food stamps.

These two programs have kept at least 7.5 million American men, women and children from living in poverty, who risk falling into what the U.S. Census Bureau now calls "deep poverty." Among the 21 countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the U.S. has the most children living in poverty, 23.1 percent, almost five times as many as Iceland with the lowest rate of 4.7 percent.

Sen. Rand Paul believes that unemployment insurance creates dependency and prevents able-bodied poor from looking for work. But the senator — who says he has a big brain and there is no reason to doubt him — ignores the fact that the rate of hiring is and has been flat, and that the proportion of long-term jobless is greater than the short-term.

Most companies hire the latter first. He also ignores the number of "missing workers," maybe as many as 6 million, who would be working if jobs were available.

But let's think like Paul for a moment. He believes that many or all recipients of federal aid do not deserve it. The notion of the undeserving poor goes back to the Puritans. So even though living-wage jobs are not available, they should be forced to work, or, if not, they must be punished.

But do not many of these people have children, whose lives will be far worse off? Sure, some people scam any system, but many of them have children, so Senator Big Brain will punish children of the undeserving as well as the deserving poor. The key words here are "punish" and "children."

Meanwhile, Sen. Mitch McConnell denounces the farm bill as a "food stamp" program, although SNAP is part of a bill that also includes corporate welfare for agribusiness, including some millionaire members of Congress.

In 2012, according to the charity Feeding America, 49 million households experienced food insecurity, 33.1 million adults and 15.9 million children.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines "very low food security" as households in which "normal eating patterns ... were disrupted and food intake was reduced" because of insufficient money or other resources.

The SNAP budget already fell in November by $5 billion when increases put into the 2009 stimulus expired. Now Republicans want to cut another $40 billion, Democrats counter with a smaller cut.

In 2012, food stamps kept about 5 million people above the poverty line, and without them the child poverty rate would have been much higher. Meanwhile, 15 percent of seniors nationally faced the threat of hunger, according to the National Foundation to End Senior Hunger.

But the ConGrinch Republicans want to play Santa Claus when it comes to ramping up crop subsidies and insurance for agribusiness. They cultivate the romantic illusion that they are helping small farmers, but nearly all of the billions in subsidies have gone to fewer than 100 agribusiness firms.

From 1995 to 2012, three-fourths of taxpayer money went to just 10 percent of these "farms," much less to real small farmers. Several billionaires receive millions in taxpayer dollars in the form of agricultural subsidies to companies they own, including Wall Street's Charles Schwab and S. Truett Cathy, owner of Chick-fil-A.

Fifteen members of Congress hauled in $238,000 in taxpayer subsidies last year: 11 representatives, all Republicans, and two Democratic and two Republican senators.

Stephen Fincher, (R-Tenn.), quoted Saint Paul's warning against idleness from Thessalonians in arguing for huge cuts in food stamp funds. Fincher's firm received $3.38 million in taxpayer subsidies from 1999 to 2012, the second-largest recipient of such largesse.

Even the conservative Cato Institute believes that subsidies to huge firms "distort the economy" and give them no reason to innovate, keep costs down or protect the environment "because the government will always bail you out" through crop insurance subsidies, which the Republican Congress is increasing because, unlike crop subsidies, watchdog groups cannot track them.

Kentuckians who live in over 80 counties where the percentage of people below the poverty level is above 15 percent of the population — just over 40 of those contain over 20 percent living below the poverty level and as high as 30 percent — might well ask what is the position of McConnell and Paul on corporate welfare for agribusiness.

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