Members Only | February 1, 2023 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

With SNAP proposal, Iowa Republicans reveal contempt for the ‘undeserving’ poor

A chance to take food out of their mouths, writes Noah Berlatsky.


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The Iowa Republican party is proposing draconian new restrictions on what food can be purchased with the state’s food stamps, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

This attack on the poor at the state level is coming at the same time as the national GOP has successfully blocked the continuation of the Child Tax Credit, a program which substantially, demonstrably reduced child poverty.

The GOP’s priorities are clear. They don’t want to reduce poverty. They want to police, control and torment the poor. The party that constantly touts liberty doesn’t want liberty for all. They want liberty for the powerful to impose their will on the most vulnerable.

Republican ire
SNAP is a crucial safety net and the country’s most effective anti-hunger program. In 2021, it ensured that 41 million Americans — 12 percent of the population — could afford an adequate diet every month.

SNAP also provides valuable emergency economic stability. SNAP enrollment increases in downturns, putting money into the economy to combat recession and boost recovery.

Families under House File 3 could no longer buy white bread, American cheese, coffee, snack foods, canned fruit and vegetables, bottled water, crackers and more.

Despite its importance, or because of it, SNAP has long been a target of Republican ire.

Matthew Gritter’s 2017 monograph Undeserving: SNAP Reform and Conceptions of the Deserving Poor chronicles how politicians have moved to regulate food stamps in recent decades. They’ve tried to put limits on what foods could be purchased and to prevent people without disabilities or dependents from getting aid.

They’ve also pushed  drug testing — an idea introduced by former KKK leader and Louisiana Senator David Duke, and instituted in states like Florida and Utah.

Gritter concludes in an earlier paper that the goal of these interventions appears to be to replace “a safety net of last resort” with “a costly method to impose punitive measures on the poor.”

“Evidence suggests that reforms will reduce enrollment without changing the circumstances that led people to seek assistance,” he says.

Iowa is the latest attempt to target SNAP.

Canned tuna and salmon
The new bill, House File 3, would put harsh limits on what low-income families could purchase in Iowa when receiving federal SNAP food stamp funds for healthy food options.

It would restrict purchases to those covered by the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, which uses federal funds for food assistance to pregnant people and new parents.

According to the Iowa Hunger Coalition, “this bill would restrict SNAP participants’ ability to make their own food choices, take food away from Iowans, and increase hunger and food insecurity in our state.”

Families under House File 3 could no longer buy white bread, American cheese, coffee, snack foods, canned fruit and vegetables, bottled water, crackers and more.

They also couldn’t buy any meat except canned tuna and salmon. This despite the fact that meat, poultry and seafood is the top expenditure category for SNAP recipients, accounting for 19 percent of money spent on food.

The Iowa GOP also wants a limit of $2,750 on household assets for receiving SNAP benefits; the cap is raised to $4,250 in assets if one family member is over 59 or is disabled. Houses and one vehicle would be excluded. Children’s savings accounts would not.

These low caps mean that people could not save for emergencies, because doing so would mean they would lose SNAP benefits. Nor could they own a second vehicle — a necessity for getting to work in many rural areas.

Historic low
The assault on SNAP is ugly because we have just conducted a sweeping experiment demonstrating that no-strings assistance to the poor is wildly successful at lifting children out of poverty with virtually no downsides.

The expanded Child Tax Credit instituted in 2021 provided monthly cash payments to low income families with children. It closed a loophole that prevented the poorest families from receiving assistance, and increased payments for everyone. 

The result? Child poverty dropped to a historic low of 5.2 percent.

Lawmakers allowed the expanded CTC to expire. 

Inevitably, child poverty rates went back up.

Lawmakers refused to renew the expanded CTC in part because, mirroring attitudes towards SNAP, they believed that the people receiving the money were not deserving.

West Virginia’s conservative Democratic Senator Joe Manchin said he was worried parents would use benefits to buy drugs. He also wanted to institute work requirements for recipients.

But increasing restrictions prevents the neediest people from receiving benefits. It also may prevent people from working. 

A study of those in line to receive CTC funds found that recipients believed the additional money would allow them to pay for childcare and increase their work hours.

Sure enough, in studies of the program conducted after it expired, there was no evidence that CTC payments reduced workforce participation.

We know that SNAP is effective at reducing hunger. We know that simply giving people money, without conditions, is an incredibly effective means of pulling children out of poverty.

But conservatives don’t care. That’s because they’re not actually concerned with helping the poor.

They are concerned with policing them.

Conservatives want a poverty policy that is focused on preventing people from accessing benefits. The goal is to punish the undeserving. And all poor people are assumed to be undeserving.

The success of the CTC shows that poverty and hunger are not intractable problems. They are deliberate policy choices.

The wealthy and powerful impose misery on the poor because they believe desperate people are more tractable and less able to organize. 

Or perhaps they attack the poor simply because they don’t like the poor and believe they should suffer.

In any case, the expiration of the CTC, and the Iowa GOP’s assault on the SNAP program, shows that neither the pandemic nor the 2022 midterms have changed Republican commitments. GOP politicians like to cosplay as champions of the working class.

But the truth is they hold people of modest means in contempt and relish the chance to take food out of their mouths.

Noah Berlatsky writes about the political economy for the Editorial Board. He lives in Chicago. Find him @nberlat.

1 Comment

  1. Bern on February 2, 2023 at 9:42 am

    I fear that Senator Manchin will use his benefits to purchase drugs. I think it is time we stopped paying him.

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