Food Wars Veteran: Trump’s Battle Plan is Great if You Want America’s Hungry To Get Hungrier

By David Hinckley

The villain in the popular PBS drama Poldark, Jack Farthing’s George Warleggan, irritates us not because he’s wealthy and powerful, but because he believes wealth and power make him a superior being.

He doesn’t despise the people who perform the labor and services necessary to maintain his fortune and lifestyle. Their lot and lives are simply of no concern to him. His signature dismissal is that they should defer in all matters to their “betters,” meaning the monied aristocracy into which Warleggan had the good sense to be born.

There’s more than a little George Warleggan in President Donald Trump’s proposals for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) — one of many safety net programs Trump’s proposed budget would dramatically alter or begin to dismantle.

“I think we can all agree that we don’t want people in America to starve,” says Noreen Springstead, executive director of New York-based WhyHunger. “But under the president’s proposal, more people will go hungry. It’s a recipe for disaster.”

SNAP currently gives recipients an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card, which they use like a credit card when they shop at food stores.

Under Trump’s proposal, most recipients would have part or all of their benefits delivered in pre-packed boxes, a government-selected assortment that would include items like shelf-stable milk, cereal, pasta and canned fruits and vegetables.

Springstead, like virtually everyone else who works with food-supply organizations, can tick off a dozen reasons this is an appallingly bad idea.

Start, she says, with the sharp decline in the nutritional value of a package heavy on starches and processed food with no, repeat no, fresh fruits or vegetables. “This would be a huge step backwards from everything we’ve done with food programs,” Springstead says.

Continue with the fact that people from different cultures eat different foods. Imagine being forced to give your kids only foods they don’t know and don’t like.

Bring in the fact that the loss of SNAP recipient business could cripple many local farmers and merchants. Add the nightmare of creating a government bureaucracy — something President Trump’s party claims to loathe — that would have to coordinate and regularly deliver tens of millions of packages.

But compelling as all those reasons are, or should be, they aren’t the one that’s most chilling.

The most chilling reason is that Trump’s proposed system would stigmatize people who, almost always through no fault of their own, need help to feed themselves and their families.

And why would free food do this?

Because people who don’t need assistance programs tend not to understand how living on or below the poverty line makes every day and every hour hard. There is no break from worrying about the next rent date, the next pair of shoes and the next meal, never mind a car payment, a birthday or, God forbid, a medical emergency.

The last thing you need, on top of that, is to be publicly singled out and labeled. That’s why the old food stamps, an eye magnet in every checkout line, were replaced by the inconspicuous EBT card. A weekly box of government food would not be inconspicuous.

You lose a lot of your choices when you’re poor, and each time it strips away a little of the dignity you’re fighting so hard to hold onto. Being told you can no longer choose the food you eat comes perilously close to saying you must defer to your betters.

In theory, there should be no stigma to receiving food assistance. In real life, there sometimes is. For kids, it’s because kids are cruel. For adults, it’s because some adults are cruel, too, and some buy the malignant myth that people in public assistance programs are playing everyone else for suckers.

Yes, any system has people looking to game it. Nail them. But it’s a flat-out lie, Springstead says, that SNAP recipients are lazy no-’counts who stock up on pork rinds and beer, then watch TV all day.

“Most SNAP recipients are employed,” she notes, often at more than one job. The problem is those jobs don’t pay enough money for a family to live on.

“The root cause of hunger is poverty,” she says. “What this country has is a wage problem. That’s what we should be focusing on.”

The people in power now talk a lot about jobs. They rarely talk about wages. They talk about how many corporations have shared their new tax-cut windfall with workers, not mentioning that in almost every case it’s been a one-time bonus, not a wage increase. Corporate tax cuts keep giving, wages stay where they are.

American history is pretty clear that if you wait for water from the trickle-down faucet, you die of thirst.

In any case, Springstead is doubtless correct when she says that even politicians who most fiercely oppose “entitlement” programs don’t do so because they want children to starve.

They just see no benefit in redirecting resources from successful people to people who are not successful.

“They talk,” says Springstead, “like it’s a character flaw if someone can’t afford food for their family.”

She notes that Trump’s proposal for SNAP isn’t law, just a proposal. She says it’s troubling nonetheless.

“It’s a statement of values and principles,” she says. “It says a lot about the direction the leader of the country wants us to move in.

“It says he doesn’t care about hungry people.”

Except that they should heed their betters.

Noreen Springstead

Noreen Springstead

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