Food Stamps Thanksgiving

I’ve gone on a rant about the short-sightedness of most criticism of programs like food stamps before. But, with Thanksgiving coming up it seemed to me appropriate to get back on my soap box.

About 45 million people in the U.S. receive food stamps. That’s about 14 percent of the American population. For 6 million Americans, food stamps is their only income. 55 percent of food stamp households include children. 14 percent include a disabled member. 9 percent include someone over the age of 60.  And if you don’t think this is a racial justice issue, a quarter of food stamp households are headed by African Americans, making them the most over-represented group on the program. The largest group of recipients, about 41 percent, are white. But only eight percent of white households receive food stamps, while 25 percent of black households are on the program.

Attacking food stamps is a play for suburban white middle class voters, just as is attacking Obamacare (a program that most benefits the uninsured, among whom just over half are people of color) by telling the lie that it is financed by stealing money from medicare (a program that mostly benefits whites).

But, put the race politics aside and it’s pretty clear that food stamps mainly benefit the most vulnerable parts of the population regardless of race. We should be happy and grateful that a program exists to provide food assistance for so many. Obviously, a lot of us are not.

But, maybe they would change their minds if they knew that about 10% of groceries in the U.S. are purchased with food stamps. In other words, food stamps subsidize farmers and grocers, something that should matter to us if we’re concerned about bringing down the unemployment rate and reducing the deficit.

In the rural area where I went to high school, food stamps made up about 25 – 50 percent of grocers’ revenues. Those stores would go out of business without the program, leaving even non-food stamp households with few if any local grocery stores.

Moreover, contrary to popular belief, 41 percent of all food stamp participants in 2010 lived in a household with earnings. For households with earnings, food stamps make up the gap between what they are paid, and what it actually costs to eat regularly. For employers of low wage workers, food stamps often help to close the gap between sub-livable wages and the actual cost of living.  So even bosses benefit from food stamps.

Concerned about our national defense, are you? The proposed budget for defense for 2013 is around $525 billion. Yet, many if not most low-ranking military personnel with dependents don’t earn enough to feed their families. A lot of them also receive food stamps.

I was once a food stamps worker. My caseload included a significant number of military families. When families are received on base, part of their orientation involves filling out an application for food stamps. Back then, we processed military applications in bulk. It was part of my training to know the abbreviations on military Leave and Earnings Statements in order to determine food stamp allotments for low-level military personnel. So food stamps often closes the gap between what the military pays, and what it actually costs to feed soldiers and their families.

If none of that is enough for you, consider this. According to Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s and a former campaign adviser to Republican Sen. John McCain, for each food stamp dollar spent, GDP grows by $1.74 one year later, making it the most effective of the various forms of federal stimulus spending.

We ought to be grateful for food stamps. If we care nothing for the families who desperately need the assistance, then we ought to at least appreciate the stimulative effect that food stamps have on our economy.

This is one for the progressive echo chamber. This thanksgiving, I say we commit to answering the detractors of social safety net programs by reminding them that we all live on food stamps.


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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

One reply on “Food Stamps Thanksgiving”

It’s true, food stamps (or basically any program giving money to the poor) is very stimulative. Almost all economist agree, left and right. But you have to be careful about using this argument.

First of all, a stimulus has to be temporary and presumably you want a permanent Food Stamps increase. Secondly, if you want to maximum stimulus for the buck you have to borrow money instead of raising taxes. But you can’t borrow and spend for permanent programs.

Except we do. We equaling Republicans.

Under George W Bush, Republicans permanently expanded the welfare state. That’s fine. I’m not necessarily arguing against that per se. But they tried to pay for it by borrowing money instead of raising taxes, arguing that this will stimulate the economy. Which it did. But nothing (I think) is so stimulative that it pays for itself. Eventually you have to pay it back.

Only “you” is usually the next guy in the Oval Office. The current guy gets the benefit of the stimulus. That’s what Cheney really meant by “deficits don’t matter” imo. They don’t matter politically.

I give you the fiscal calamity called Medicare Part D.

Obama has essentially inherited Bush’s unpaid welfare state. Republicans respond by whining about Obama’s spending. But his spending is freakin’ temporary. Its a stimulus. Theirs is permanent. It never fucking ends.

You probably agree with this more or less but I figured I’d rant it here just in case you are wondering why a RWinger votes Dem. Obama has more or less gotten us thru the most precarious economic scenario since the Great Depression. And he’s done it with rock-solid opposition, whereas FDR had a rock-solid majority and a Solid South to boot ( I mean the guy wouldn’t even let a hugely popular anti-lynching bill get passed). I don’t think Obama gets enough credit for this, including from the Left.

As Medicare Pt D demonstrates, Republicans have ceased to be the Bankers Party. Frankly, much of the time, Obama strikes me as the only adult in the room.

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