Disclaimer: I am not a statistician. I welcome those who are to challenge both the statistics I cite and my analysis of them.
The federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (still referred to as the “food stamp program” despite the fact that it covers more than food stamps) has swelled to nearly 45 million participants, at a cost of $75 billion. Republican presidential candidates have focused on the food stamp program during the 2012 GOP primary season as evidence of President Obama’s development of a welfare state at the expense of job creation.
According to 2010 U.S. Census data, blacks comprise only 12% of the U.S. population, yet make up 26% of SNAP recipients. These figures are sometimes cited by conservatives to argue that blacks are “oversubscribed” in the food stamp program relative to their numbers in the overall U.S. population – notwithstanding that blacks are hardly the largest recipients of food stamps. 49% of SNAP benefit recipients are white, and 20% of recipients are Hispanic.
But maybe there’s another way to look at the numbers.
A CNN “In America” feature about Dr. Martin Luther King’s anti-poverty program, quoted data from the nonprofit organization Feeding America, as well as an Indiana University white paper that was prepared at the request of Tavis Smiley and Cornel West. Those figures show the following:
* According to Census data, 27.4% of African Americans lived in poverty in 2010, compared to 26.6% of Latinos, 12.1% of Asians, and about 10% of whites.
* Using the official federal definition, 15.1% of the population – or 46.2 million people – are living in poverty .
By U.S. Census Bureau poverty thresholds, a family of four earning $22,314 or less is considered to be living in poverty. Comparing the percentage of blacks living in poverty (27%), to the percentage of black Americans (12%), it is clear that if African-Americans are oversubscribed to anything, it’s poverty. That 26% of the people who receive SNAP benefits – which includes not only food stamps, but school lunch programs, among others – are black, appears consistent with the figures showing 27% of blacks living in poverty. Indeed, if one compares participation in the food stamp program to poverty levels, it appears white people are “oversubscribed” to the food stamp program, since less than 10% of white Americans are living in poverty, yet 49% of SNAP benefit recipients are white. If the figures were reported this way, perhaps Republicans would stop talking about food stamps as a black people problem, and might stop talking about food stamps altogether.
Now look at the size of the SNAP program compared to the percentage of Americans living in poverty. According to figures on the SNAP website, about 45 million Americans currently receive SNAP assistance. As noted above, 46.2 million Americans are living in poverty. The number of poor Americans and the number of Americans receiving SNAP benefits are pretty consistent. It seems the food stamp program is working as intended to help feed poor Americans. If that’s true, perhaps President Obama should reframe Gingrich’s crowning him the ”food stamp President” as an honor.
Regardless of how one looks at the numbers, if politicians – whether Republican or Democrat – want to reduce the size of the food stamp program, they should stop distorting the issue as one of lazy blacks seeking to live off other people’s money. If black people are disproportionately receiving food stamps, it’s because they’re disproportionately poor.
Poverty and hunger are American issues. America has a poverty problem, not a food stamp problem. Too often, we dismiss the problems of the poor by making sweeping generalizations from a safe distance – or make narrow judgments when we are forced to deal with the poor up close. Clearly, the increase in the food stamp program is a symptom of what ails the American economy – job loss and income inequality.
Instead of accusing those who complain about income inequality of “income envy,” politicians should focus on putting the long-term unemployed – not to mention the never-employed – to work. I agree with those who feel that work, not welfare, is the long-term solution to reducing poverty – but people can’t work if there are no jobs, or if they’re not qualified for the jobs that exist. Politicians on both sides of the aisle should be taking action to improve education and job training, attract jobs and encourage entrepreneurship. A smaller food stamp program would be but one logical result of those efforts.
Radical, I know.