The word "freedom" looms large in modern conservative rhetoric.
Lobbying groups are given names like FreedomWorks ; health
reform is denounced not just for its cost but as an assault on,
yes, freedom. Oh, and remember when we were supposed to refer to
pommes frites as "freedom fries"?
The right's definition of freedom, however, isn't one that, say,
F.D.R. would recognize. In particular, the third of his famous
Four Freedoms - freedom from want - seems to have been turned on
its head. Conservatives seem, in particular, to believe that
freedom's just another word for not enough to eat.
Hence the war on food stamps, which House Republicans have just
voted to cut sharply even while voting to increase farm
In a way, you can see why the food stamp program - or, to use
its proper name, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program
(SNAP) - has become a target. Conservatives are deeply committed
to the view that the size of government has exploded under
President Obama but face the awkward fact that public employment
is down sharply, while overall spending has beenfalling fast as
a share of G.D.P.
SNAP, however, really has grown a lot, with enrollment rising
from 26 million Americans in 2007 to almost 48 million now.
Conservatives look at this and see what, to their great
disappointment, they can't find elsewhere in the data: runaway,
explosive growth in a government program. The rest of us,
however, see a safety-net program doing exactly what it's
supposed to do: help more people in a time of widespread
The recent growth of SNAP has indeed been unusual, but then so
have the times, in the worst possible way. The Great Recession
of 2007-9 was the worst slump since the Great Depression, and
the recovery that followed has been very weak. Multiple careful
economic studies have shown that the economic downturn explains
the great bulk of the increase in food stamp use. And while the
economic news has been generally bad, one piece of good news is
that food stamps have at least mitigated the hardship, keeping
millions of Americansout of poverty .
Nor is that the program's only benefit. The evidence is now
overwhelming that spending cuts in a depressed economy deepen
the slump, yet government spending has been falling anyway.
SNAP, however, is one program that has been expanding, and as
such it has indirectly helped save hundreds of thousands of
But, say the usual suspects, the recession ended in 2009. Why
hasn't recovery brought the SNAP rolls down? The answer is,
while the recession did indeed officially end in 2009, what
we've had since then is a recovery of, by and for a small number
of people at the top of the income distribution, with none of
the gains trickling down to the less fortunate. Adjusted for
inflation, the income of the top 1 percent rose 31 percent from
2009 to 2012, but the real income of the bottom 40 percent
actually fell 6 percent. Why should food stamp usage have gone
Still, is SNAP in general a good idea? Or is it, as Paul Ryan,
the chairman of the House Budget Committee, puts it, an example
of turning the safety net into "a hammock that lulls able-bodied
people to lives of dependency and complacency."
One answer is, some hammock: last year, average food stamp
benefits were $4.45 a day . Also, about those "able-bodied
people": almost two-thirds of SNAP beneficiaries are children,
the elderly or the disabled, and most of the rest are adults
Beyond that, however, you might think that ensuring adequate
nutrition for children, which is a large part of what SNAP does,
actually makes it less, not more likely that those children will
be poor and need public assistance when they grow up. And that's
what the evidence shows. The economists Hilary Hoynes and Diane
Whitmore Schanzenbach have studied the impact of the food stamp
program in the 1960s and 1970s, when it was gradually rolled out
across the country. They found that children who received early
assistance grew up, on average, to be healthier and more
productive adults than those who didn't - and they were also, it
turns out, less likely to turn to the safety net for help.
SNAP, in short, is public policy at its best. It not only helps
those in need; it helps them help themselves. And it has done
yeoman work in the economic crisis, mitigating suffering and
protecting jobs at a time when all too many policy makers seem
determined to do the opposite. So it tells you something that
conservatives have singled out this of all programs for special
Even some conservative pundits worry that the war on food
stamps, especially combined with the vote to increase farm
subsidies, is bad for the G.O.P., because it makes Republicans
look like meanspirited class warriors. Indeed it does. And
that's because they are.