“Newark Mayor Cory Booker is set to live at least a week on food stamps after he challenged a self-described Army wife and veteran to join him in the test,” Politico reported last week. “Booker tweeted on Monday that investing in ‘schools, nutrition, etc’ would save money in the long run instead of paying only for ‘huge back-end’ government programs like prisons and police.”
Booker’s pledge comes in response to a tweet from a woman that read, “nutrition is not a responsibility of the government.”
He shot back, “We have a shared responsibility that kids go to school nutritionally ready 2 learn. Lets you and I try to live on food stamps in New Jersey (high cost of living) and feed a family for a week or month. U game?”
What makes this exchange important is that it asks fundamental questions our society must address: What are the limits of the social contract? Where are the edges of the social safety net?
In recent months, Republicans have complained about the rise in food stamp spending. In June, the program (officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) hit a new record of 46.7 million Americans enrolled. That’s one in seven of us.
But how many, exactly, is too many?
It’s true, eligibility requirements were relaxed under the Obama administration, but that’s more the result of the interminable economic downturn than anything else.
Since food stamps were first introduced in 1939, they’ve enjoyed bipartisan support. The program’s first administrator said, “We got a picture of a gorge, with farm surpluses on one cliff and under-nourished city folks with outstretched hands on the other. We set out to find a practical way to build a bridge across that chasm.”
That chasm still exists, and Congress is still trying to build a sturdier bridge. The latest effort is in the Farm Bill, now before the House.
“Republicans have internally disagreed over cuts to food stamps, which make up about 80 percent of the half-trillion-dollar bill’s cost over five years,” the Washington Post reported. “The Senate bill would cut about $400 million a year out of the program’s almost $80 billion annual cost, while the House bill would cut about $1.6 billion from food stamps annually. Conservatives have said neither version makes deep enough cuts.”
That’s looking at the issue from the wrong end. Food stamps remain one of the best-regulated forms of assistance for the poor (the Lone Star Card, for example, ensures that healthy foods are purchased). They meet a clear need, one that we as a society have agreed must be met.
Booker has it right. Members of Congress now debating food stamps would be in a better position to make decisions, if they lived on them for a time.