Fight Over Food Stamps Has Many Complexities

Jerry Hagstrom

OKLAHOMA CITY—Why did all but 15 Republicans decide last week that they could vote for a $39 billion cut to food stamps over the next 10 years even though participation in the program has gone up during the recession?

The experience of Torri Christian, director of advocacy and policy for the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma and the Community Food Bank for Eastern Oklahoma, goes a long way in explaining why support for food stamps in low-income Southern states is so low among their Republican politicians.

On Thursday the House passed a bill that would cut $39 billion from the food stamp program, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. This week that bill is expected to be married to the farm-program bill the House passed in June and sent to the Senate to begin a conference on a comprehensive farm bill.

The vote was 217-210. All House Democrats voted against it, but only 15 Republicans joined them in opposition. They included four from New York, two each from California, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, and one each from Alaska, Nebraska, North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia.

The five-member Oklahoma delegation, all Republicans, voted for the bill, including House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, who last year proposed only a $16.5 billion cut and this year a $20.5 billion cut in SNAP.

Oklahoma was one of the 40-some states that requested waivers from the Agriculture Department to make it easier for people to qualify for food stamps, but this year the Legislature passed and the governor signed a law forbidding the state government from asking for another waiver to allow a category of beneficiaries known as "able-bodied adults without dependents" (ABAWDs) to get benefits for more than the federally allowed three months out of every three years.

"Oklahoma has this underlying culture of self-sufficiency that is probably the main thing that Oklahomans pride themselves in," Christian said in an interview earlier this month. "Loudly advocating for the safety net is not the easiest thing to do in Oklahoma."

Christian said that she and her colleagues spent much of the early part of the year trying to tone down the effort in the state Legislature to stop the ABAWDs from getting more benefits. Oklahoma legislators initially wanted to require that the beneficiaries work more hours than the federal law requires and had to be informed that they could not go beyond federal law, Christian said. The ban on ABAWD waivers passed, but Christian said antihunger advocates managed to stop other proposals, including one on asset tests that would have made it particularly hard for senior citizens to get food stamps.

With these state-level battles a high priority, the debate in Washington over food stamps seemed far away, but Christian said she does travel to Washington about once a quarter and had made it clear to Lucas that there are still many needy people in Oklahoma. (Perhaps that's why Lucas in an interview said he heard more about food stamps from advocates in Washington than at home.) Lucas, she said, visited food banks in 2011 and has been supportive of SNAP. "He is aware that its benefits are important for families staying together," Christian said. "He is not one to buy into any rhetoric."

But she said it has been harder to get Lucas's staff to agree to meetings since he has been under so much pressure to cut make a big cut to food stamps. Christian said she does not blame Lucas for agreeing to the cuts, particularly since it is part of a path toward a new farm bill.

Last year, when Lucas proposed a $16.5 billion cut to food stamps over 10 years, the Oklahoma food banks remained silent while national antihunger groups such as the Food Research and Action Center called for no cuts to food stamps. "We did not say a thing," Christian said. "We knew that no cuts was unrealistic." National hunger groups "are trying to keep their message consistent," she added, "but it is not productive when they are not working with the reality."

Christian and her colleagues have also tried approaching more recently elected Oklahoma Republicans. Rep. Jim Bridenstine, who represents Tulsa, has visited food banks, she said, but when it comes to discussing hunger he "gets into very theoretical conversations. He is very libertarian."

The advocates have also talked to Rep. Markwayne Mullin, who represents the poorest part of the state, but with him the conversation must start with "why need exists in the community," not with the need to maintain SNAP benefit and eligibility levels, she said.

Lobbying to maintain SNAP presents special challenges for food-bank leaders, she said. They realize that low-income people get most of their food through SNAP and use the food banks as a backup, and that if SNAP benefits are cut people will have to come to food banks earlier in the month.

"We do publicly support SNAP not just because we can't do more, but if we want to end hunger we have to advocate for safety nets," she said.

But the first priority for the Oklahoma food banks, which are part of the Feeding America network, has to be acquiring and distributing food. "This is food in, food out," she said.

The Oklahoma food banks get between 10 and 20 percent of their donations from the Emergency Food Assistance Program, or TEFAP, which is run by the Agriculture Department. Commodity-distribution programs are more popular with Republicans than SNAP, and the House bill that cut food stamps contains a bigger increase for TEFAP than the Senate-passed farm bill.

But Christian noted that her food banks have to get the other 80 to 90 percent from donations of food or money. That means spending a lot of time on food drives and fundraising, but also dealing with the fact that some donors are very conservative and might not like a combative campaign against SNAP cuts.

One of the oddest things about the current battle over food stamps is that, while farm groups opposed splitting the farm bill in two, food companies and retailers that take in the SNAP money through electronic benefit-transfer cards have been silent except for their support of the Food Research and Action Center and other antihunger groups. Christian said the Oklahoma antihunger leaders have explored the idea of local retailers writing an op-ed article pointing out that SNAP is important to their bottom line, but "the economic stimulus argument backfires in a way" and there are fears people may ask, "Are you trying to help the needy, or what are you trying to pull here?"

The Oklahoma experience seems to signal that campaigning to maintain SNAP benefits is more complicated and difficult than it might appear.

When Lucas held town-hall meetings in Ponca City and Blackwell on Sept. 5, there were no SNAP beneficiaries or antihunger advocates to urge him not to cut food for the needy.

"People working three jobs are not going to make it to a town-hall meeting on a Thursday," Christian said. "People struggling just day to day to get by don't have the time and the agencies serving them don't have the time. They are tapped out emotionally. That is why there is such a fractured network for safety nets."

The Oklahoma food banks publicly opposed the $39 billion cut and said afterward that they "look forward to collaborating further with our lawmakers in the conference committee process to minimize negative impacts for the families we serve."

The Senate bill contains only a $4 billion cut, and antihunger advocates expect the Senate and President Obama to oppose a deep cut. But the $39 billion House cut is now on the table, and the pressure is on to finalize a farm bill that can be passed in the House.

National antihunger groups and Democrats argue that there has long been bipartisan support for SNAP and the feeding programs. But when Democrats argued on the House floor against the cuts they used the examples of an op-ed written by former Senate Majority Leaders Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Bob Dole, R-Kan., and Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Thad Cochran, R-Miss. But Daschle and Dole have been retired for a long time and there are questions about whether Cochran will run again.

Antihunger groups in the more liberal states have no problem putting pressure on Democrats to defend food stamps. But that's preaching to the choir. Perhaps what has happened in Oklahoma will be a wake-up call to the national antihunger groups to provide some kind of assistance to antihunger groups in states that have elected a new generation of Republican politicians. If something doesn't happen to convince them they need to support SNAP, conservatives may succeed in their campaign to gut both it and the farm program.

Contributing Editor Jerry Hagstrom is the founder and executive director of The Hagstrom Report , which may be found at