While attention focuses on Paul Ryan’s remarks about inner city culture, another dog-whistle theme continues its slow roil: food stamp abuse. More even than Ryan’s twisting narrative, the brouhaha around food stamps helps make clear that conservatives seek to conjure a much bigger bogeyman than “lazy” minorities.
Ostensibly worried that too many people prefer welfare to work, House Republicans this January stripped $8.6 billion from the food stamp program. This threatened to reduce monthly food assistance by an average of $90 per family — from households that are barely hanging on, with average gross monthly incomes of just $744. Yet far from conceding defeat, states are joining battle by adjusting their programs in ways that evade the cuts, bringing the food stamp debate back.
Just last week, House Speaker John Boehner warned that “states have found ways to cheat, once again, on signing up people for food stamps,” and he implored his colleagues “to stop this cheating and this fraud from continuing.” Cheating and fraud constitute stock themes in the conservative assault on food stamps — tropes applied indiscriminately to both recipients and government. And therein lies a clue to the real target.
To see the actual agenda clearly, though, it helps to reach back to Ronald Reagan, for he perfected today’s conservative assault on food stamps.
Reagan frequently stumped by sympathizing with the anger of voters waiting in line to buy hamburger, while some young fellow ahead of them used food stamps to buy a T-bone steak. With this tale, Reagan invoked the stereotype of the welfare recipient who abuses government benefits to live in luxury (Reagan’s other version: welfare queens).