In the 2007 film The Counterfeiters, a group of Jewish concentration camp prisoners are forced to produce fake currency as a means to destabilize the English and U.S. economies. While the film focuses on the moral dilemmas faced by the prisoners, it is evident that disastrous consequences would have befallen the Allied war effort had the counterfeiting plan succeeded.
Indeed, a robust film genre has developed around the idea of a rogue group attempting to destabilize U.S. society. Ask filmgoers this question and titles such as Live Free or Die Hard, Swordfish, White House Down, The Dark Knight Rises, etc. likely would come to mind.
So what if you learned that a group of domestic troublemakers was planning to destabilize the U.S. economy and invite ruinous hardship on millions of Americans, mainly women, children, the disabled and the elderly? What if you discovered that their plan was to increase unemployment, hunger, homelessness, poverty and poor health? To slow local economies still reeling from a sluggish (or non-existent) recovery, and push deprivation to Third World levels? Would you sit idly by and let this happen? Or would you fight back?
Although we can’t all be Bruce Willis, we suspect that most Americans would do what they could to oppose this scheme. And in this case, this nightmare scenario is no Hollywood plot.
In fact, the subversive plan in question is the House Republicans’ stated goal of cutting $40 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, traditionally referred to as food stamps) over the next ten years.
Born in the Great Depression, and strengthened by Democratic and Republican administrations alike, the SNAP program is a modern anti-poverty marvel. SNAP improves access to healthy meals for more than 20 million children each year – that’s nearly one in three children in the U.S. It also reduces chronic illness and hospitalizations among children in low-income households and significantly reduces poverty and the severity of poverty among recipient households. The positive effects of SNAP nutrition benefits often are evident years later. American farmers produce ample amounts of food, and providing it to low-income and poor families keeps kids healthier, happier and better prepared to do their best in school. Would our film heroes sit back and allow a rogue outfit to deny food to our children?
SNAP also acts as a powerful economic stimulus. Use of the program expands when and where need is greatest and contracts when local economies begin to recover. Households with the lowest incomes and limited assets receive higher levels of assistance, although the monthly benefit is quite modest (about $133 per month per eligible member). By providing resources that must be spent at local grocery stores and retail outlets on basic food items, SNAP stimulates the farm-to-market nexus and provides the basis for hundreds of thousands of private-sector jobs in the farming, transportation and retail industries. SNAP helps grocery stores stay open, especially in small towns and rural areas where the economy has been hit particularly hard by the recession. Thanks in part to SNAP, small businesses continue to employ your friends, family and neighbors. And finally, contrary to what Republicans claim, SNAP is very efficient, with a rigorous application process, high rates of payment accuracy and low rates of misuse (about 1 cent on the dollar).
The main limitation of SNAP is not that it helps feed too many people or costs too much. Instead, its greatest weakness is that nationwide almost 30 percent of eligible individuals do not receive benefits. This problem is especially acute among the elderly. When potential recipients of food assistance are discouraged from applying for benefits, local economies are deprived of billions of dollars. One would think that pro-business Republicans looking to curry the favor of business owners would be sensitive to this enormous loss of revenue. In Texas, for example, where Gov. Rick Perry trumpets the pro-business environment of his state, low take-up rates left more than $2 billion off the table in 2011; California lost more than $3 billion in unutilized federal funds. These figures are even more confounding because the federal government pays 100 percent of the SNAP benefits for each state. The failure to utilize these resources also strains the capacity of state and local governments, while leaving an under-resourced network of charities, food banks and soup kitchens to fill the gap. Ultimately, those who suffer most are households unable to put adequate food on their tables.
Americans pride themselves on fighting for the underdog, yet too often we sit back and watch as the economy is undermined and our most vulnerable citizens are pushed farther to the margins. In Hollywood, it is often one determined person who stands up, fights back and ultimately defeats the “bad guys.” In reality, all of us must be engaged in the fight.
In September, when Congress reconvenes and the rogue Republicans attempt once again to dismantle SNAP and our local economies, let’s give them the Hollywood ending they deserve.