The Trump White House’s newly proposed budget is (like all White House budget proposals) more of a political document than anything else. It has no actual bearing on how the government will spend its money, and Congress will almost certainly ignore it. But that’s not to say it is entirely devoid of value -- the White House uses the annual budget proposal to act out its fantasies and give us a little glimpse at the ideologies motivating the administration’s policy preferences.
One of those ideologies, as conveyed by the White House’s vision for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, expresses insane and horrifying contempt for low-income Americans. And while the policy the administration has proposed is extreme, it fits in squarely with longstanding conservative efforts to stigmatize and shame recipients of government assistance.
One of the administration’s supposed cost-saving measures is “a bold new approach to administering SNAP.” The way the program currently works, SNAP-eligible households are provided a monthly benefit based on income level in the form of a debit card, which can be used to purchase grocery items. Some restrictions apply (no alcohol, tobacco, or pet food, for example), but SNAP recipients have wide latitude in what foods they can purchase and where they can shop.
The Trump administration wants to change all of this by forcing most SNAP recipients to receive half their monthly benefit in the form of “a USDA Foods package, which would include items such as shelf-stable milk, ready to eat cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans and canned fruit, vegetables, and meat, poultry or fish.” The Republican White House wants to choose which foods SNAP recipients eat, and it wants to control how they receive their food each month -- so much for “small government” conservatism abolishing the “nanny state.” Through means left utterly unexplained, the Trump administration argues that this new system (which will require massive bureaucratic build-up alongside the establishment of food-delivery infrastructure) will somehow be cheaper and more efficient than simply transferring money to a debit card. White House budget director Mick Mulvaney laughably spun this proposal to send low-income Americans a monthly box of canned goods and peanut butter as “a Blue Apron-type program where you actually receive the food instead of receive the cash.”
This idea is so absurd, impractical, and wildly paternalistic that people can’t really believe that the White House is actually proposing it. Politico reports this morning that “the idea that USDA would provide millions of low-income people packages of food on a national scale has not been floated by conservative think tanks, promoted by industry, or sought by previous administrations.” It was “so out of left field,” Politico notes, “that some anti-hunger advocates initially thought it was a joke.”
The proposal didn’t come out of nowhere, though. It’s an escalation of existing right-wing efforts to use SNAP as a means to control the behavior of its recipients. These efforts are rooted in a mythology -- eagerly promoted and disseminated by conservative media -- that SNAP is rife with fraud and that SNAP beneficiaries, by virtue of their status as welfare recipients, lack the moral character to make good decisions on their own.
Right-wing demonization of welfare recipients stretches back decades, from Newt Gingrich’s high-profile efforts in the 1990s to shame low-income teen mothers to Ronald Reagan popularizing the “welfare queen” slur back in 1976. The running theme of these attacks on the poor is that there exists an epidemic of undeserving welfare recipients who abuse their benefits. That’s a myth, but it carries a potent political message that blends racial and economic resentment with small-government agitation.
When it comes to SNAP, the most common complaint made by conservatives is that recipients are using their benefit to purchase inappropriate foods: “luxury” comestibles like seafood and steak, or junk food like candy bars and energy drinks. This line of attack got a huge boost in 2013 when Fox News put together a special news report called “The Great Food Stamp Binge.” The program -- hosted by Special Report anchor Bret Baier -- spotlighted an unemployed surfer in California who proudly used his SNAP benefit to buy sushi and lobster. Baier dubbed him “the new face of food stamps,” and the program pointedly asked why there isn’t “at least some stigma” attached to SNAP recipients, who used to be called “losers.”
It was a farcical piece of propaganda that actively shunned any sort of data or reporting in order to create a caricature of SNAP recipients as lazy, undeserving parasites on the public. SNAP actually has extremely low rates of fraud and abuse, and “the overwhelming majority of SNAP recipients who can work do so,” according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The news program was wildly popular with Republicans. Fox News distributed tapes of the “The Great Food Stamp Binge” on Capitol Hill, and the SNAP-abusing unemployed surfer became the mascot for the congressional GOP’s efforts to gut funding for nutritional assistance programs. Since then, various state governments have taken up measures intended to restrict which foods SNAP recipients can purchase.
In 2015, Wisconsin Republicans passed a bill banning SNAP recipients from purchasing crab, lobster, shrimp, or any other shellfish, citing “anecdotal and perceived abuses.” A Republican state senator from New York proposed legislation to cut off SNAP users from “luxury food items” like lobster and steak, while the Missouri GOP sought to ban “cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood or steak.” The reality that all of these proposals ignore is that SNAP recipients are not blowing their benefits on “luxury” foods.
The Trump administration’s proposal derives from the same idea that SNAP recipients can’t be trusted and will necessarily misuse their benefit. Rather than banning certain foods, the White House is proposing to force SNAP beneficiaries to eat an approved list of low-cost foods while simultaneously limiting the amount of benefit they have to spend. It’s gross paternalism lightly disguised with absurd promises about efficiency and cost-savings. And it fits right in with the broader right-wing argument that receipt of government assistance is morally suspect and recipients should be penalized through stigma and controlled through loss of choice.