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Let Them Eat Nothing?

By German Lopez · September 25th, 2013 · Commentary
commentary 2013-09-25

In the middle of a state economy mired in stagnant growth, Gov. John Kasich and his fellow Republicans are attempting to weaken a key safety net that benefits more than 1.8 million Ohioans.

Kasich’s administration is refusing to seek a federal waiver on work requirements for the state’s food stamp program, which means 134,000 “able-bodied,” childless adults in the state will, starting in October, need to work or attend work training courses for 20 hours a week to continue receiving their benefits.

Then, in November, the federal government is allowing extra funding to expire that will cut benefits for food stamp recipients by roughly 5.5 percent.

At the same time, federal Republicans are pursuing more cuts to the food stamp program that would slash another 5 percent in funding over 10 years, in part by blocking states from seeking out temporary waivers on work requirements.

In Hamilton County, the developments are really bad news for the roughly 18,000 childless, able-bodied food stamp recipients: Starting in October, they’ll have to find a job or work training opportunities in a state economy that’s only added 0.6 percent more jobs in the past year. In November, federal cuts will reduce food stamp benefits, which, again, thousands of recipients will now have to work for, from $200 a month, or about $2.22 a meal, to $189 a month, or $2.10 a meal.

To most Americans, this should come as little surprise. Ever since President Barack Obama rose to the White House, Republicans have done their best to label him “the food stamp president” in an attempt to tear down a program that ensures millions of Americans don’t slide into poverty and starvation.

The problem for Republicans is that the amount of food stamp recipients has dramatically risen in the past five years.

This, Republicans argue, is making Americans more dependent on government and less likely to seek jobs — as if the $2.10 a meal that food stamps provide is somehow addicting. To solve the dependency, Republicans want to draw down the benefits with stringent work requirements and other qualifiers.

But the Republican proposals are a classic case of attacking a symptom and ignoring the cause. The reason food stamp use has gone up is because the Great Recession has thrown people into dire economic situations. Not only has this fact been backed by various research papers from multiple economists and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but it speaks to the entire purpose of the program: Food stamps are what economists call an “automatic stabilizer,” a program that grows during bad times to automatically stabilize the economy. 

So when food stamp use grows in the middle of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, that just means the program is accomplishing its main goal: It’s allowing people to avoid starving just because they can’t find a well-paying job when there are few jobs available.

These kinds of economic stabilizers are a good thing for the economy, too. According to progressive think tank Policy Matters Ohio, every $1 put toward food aid generates about $1.70 in economic activity. 

Put another way, Kasich and Republicans are actually making the cause — a bad economy — worse by attacking the symptom.

On the state level, the problem seems to be that Kasich and his administration are actually falling for their own talk about Ohio undergoing an “economic miracle.” The governor seriously seems to believe that Ohio, which now has the same unemployment rate as the nation after years of being ahead of the national average, is undergoing a special economic transformation.

Consider the disconnect: In early September, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS) announced the state would no longer pursue a waiver on the work requirements because the recovering economy removed the need for lax rules. Two weeks later, ODJFS released job numbers that put Ohio’s unemployment rate at a one-year high of 7.3 percent after the state added only 0.6 percent more jobs between August 2012 and August this year.

Meanwhile, income inequality continues to rise nationwide, and U.S. poverty levels are near a 20-year high, with Ohio ranked No. 33 out of 50 states for child poverty and more than half of Cincinnati’s children classified as living in poverty.

Given the economic indicators, now is absolutely not the time to weaken a key safety net for 134,000 Ohioans. Doing so shows, at best, a wild disconnect from the economic realities facing the state and, at worst, apathy toward the plight of millions of low-income residents.

CONTACT GERMAN LOPEZ: glopez@citybeat.com or @germanrlopez



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