Harkin: Attack on food assistance ‘unconscionable’10/9/2013
U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin’s days in the great American food-stamp fight go back to the 1970s, his first years in Congress representing Iowa.
“I remember going through all these things about, ‘Oh, people are gonna cheat, people are gonna cheat, people are gonna cheat,’” said Harkin, a Democrat. “And at one time, I got so exasperated on one of these discussions I said, ‘Well, I have an answer. I know exactly how we can make sure that no one ever cheats on food stamps. Very simple. For every food-stamp recipient, you assign an accountant and minister, priest or rabbi.’
“The cost would be, well, exorbitant, should I say. I mean, that’s how ridiculous things get around here.”
Harkin said the House Republican-led assault on food stamps — officially known as the Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program (the government switched from “stamps” to electronic benefit transfer cards) — is “unconscionable.”
“We’re becoming so hard-hearted,” Harkin said in response to questions from Political Mercury on a conference call.
The House voted last month to cut $39 billion in food-stamp funding over the next decade.
As it stands, without the proposed cuts Harkin is fighting, the average, monthly food-stamp benefit for one person is $133.44 — $4.50 a day. About 20 percent of people on food stamps have no other source of income to “supplement” the U.S. Department of Agriculture-administered program.
“I’d say, ‘Go try that some time,’” Harkin said. “Try it. Try to eat on $4.50 a day. Oh, you can do it. But, boy, I’ll tell you, you’re not going to eat very well. … We go overboard in regulations and structures and spending taxpayers’ money chasing that last person who may be getting something that he or she doesn’t deserve,” Harkin said.
One thing to remember, Harkin said, is that many poor people don’t have access to cooking facilities — microwaves or stoves or pots and pans — meaning they can’t spread the $4.50 as far compared to people outfitted with full kitchens — like some of the conservatives who have bragged about their own success with frugality while taking the “SNAP Challenge” and living on $4.50 a day.
During the financial crisis of 2008, many bad actors in the financial industry received bailouts — not the sort of punitive action the government is looking to visit upon some of the more vulnerable Americans, Harkin said.
“You see the injustice of this with the people that ran Citicorp and Chase Manhattan and JP Morgan — and all the people that ran those places during the crisis in the last 10 years — they got by with millions, hundreds of millions of dollars,” Harkin said. “Not a one ever got punished or sent to jail. And yet, we’re getting upset because somebody who is poor, down on their luck, lost their job, has mental illness, a child who is homeless, we’re going to say, ‘We’re going to make it really tough on you to get your food, kid. We’re going to make it really tough on you to have an adequate diet.’ Where’s our sense of justice in this country anyway?”
During the conference call, Harkin singled out Florida Republican Congressman Steve Southerland for criticism. Southerland, whom Harkin blasted for inheriting a funeral-home business and judging the work ethics of other Americans, has been a leader in GOP efforts to kill billions of dollars in funding for food stamps.
The Washington Post on Sept. 24 carried a feature on Southerland’s efforts. At one point, the Floridian visited Southeast Washington, D.C., where people were crammed into a classroom to learn tips about preparing for a job interview in fast food. All were unemployed. Most were among the 24 percent of Washington residents who receive between $100 and $600 each month in food assistance.
“Shower. Tuck in your shirt. Make eye contact with the interviewer,” the teacher was saying, The Post reported.
“Make sure your belt and your shoes match,” Southerland interjected, walking into the room with his colleagues and then introducing himself, according to The Post.
Harkin referenced the “belt-and-shoes” comment several times on the conference call as an example of what he believes is the tone-deafness among wealthy Republicans in Congress who appear to take pleasure in slashing programs for the poor.
“This guy is so out of touch with what’s happening in real life,” Harkin said. “And yet he believes that he has the answer to solving the SNAP program.” CV
Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman who writes for The Carroll Daily Times Herald and offers columns for Cityview.