Janine Jackson interviewed Northeastern University’s Christopher Bosso about food assistance programs for the October 20, 2023, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: Listeners may remember the images from the spring of 2020: farmers dumping milk, smashing eggs and plowing produce under, even as people were lining up at food pantries.
CounterSpin spoke with scientist Ricardo Salvador, who explained that it wasn’t perversity so much as a result of the structure of our systems of food production and distribution, that don’t work exactly the way we might think.
While more complex than it first appears, that imagery still reflects a difficult reality: the paradox of want amidst plenty that is at the core of our next guest’s new book.
The book is called Why SNAP Works: A Political History—and Defense—of the Food Stamp Program. It’s out now from University of California Press. We’re joined by author Christopher Bosso, professor of public policy and politics at Northeastern University. He joins us now by phone; welcome to CounterSpin, Christopher Bosso.
Christopher Bosso: Glad to be here.
JJ: The reauthorization for the 2023 Farm Bill is underway, and every time the Farm Bill comes up, folks are puzzled to see that SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is in there, alongside agricultural research and forestry. But this situation—this marriage, as you put it—has been central from the beginning.
CB: Yeah, and in two ways. First is the conceptual origins of SNAP, food stamps, and why they started in the first place, and that lies at the very intersection that you spoke about, this intersection of want amidst plenty, back in the Depression.
And, in fact, the original food stamp program was essentially a program designed to get rid of crop surpluses, or in some cases animal surpluses, as much as anything else. It really was designed initially that you would get, for every dollar in orange stamps you bought, if you were qualified to do so, you would get 50 cents in free blue stamps, and those blue stamps could be used at any retailer to buy any food declared in surplus by the US Department of Agriculture.
Now, this was during the Depression. When they’re brought back later on in the 1960s, that’s not as center, but it’s to boost food consumption for low-income households.
But then the politics of it takes over, that you still have SNAP food stamps, and then SNAP in the Farm Bill, first informally and now formally since the 1970s, to seal that deal between, essentially, the conservative rural representatives, who otherwise might not support what they might see as welfare for low-income residents, and for urban legislators, who would not otherwise vote for commodity program supports.
So that deal has been locked in since the 1970s, and lies at the heart of the Farm Bill Coalition, and especially for Democrats. That’s the reason that most Democrats will vote for the Farm Bill—not the only, but the primary reason.
JJ: To be clear, not being designed specifically as an anti-poverty program doesn’t mean that SNAP hasn’t had anti-poverty effects. But I just want to draw you out on the linking of it to farmer support, to commodity support.
You’ve just indicated this; it shielded it politically for years. So even though we know that these programs have been attacked—we see them being attacked all the time—they still survive, in some shape or form.
CB: They do. And in part because, and this is the part that a lot of people don’t want to really talk about, is that it’s essentially, before the pandemic, it was a $60 billion–a–year subsidy to the food system. That’s what it is. I mean, you’re basically priming low-income Americans to buy more food.
And that’s $60 billion, more now; since the pandemic, it doubled, and now it’s coming back down again, but still, pretty significant; I haven’t looked at the latest numbers. But at the end of the day, it’s as much a subsidy to Walmart as it is to low-income Americans, in a perverse sense.
JJ: Right. It’s interesting. It’s kind of a hidden aspect, in terms of the coverage. The coverage might be the farm aspects on one page, and then on another page, a story about SNAP. But it’s not connected, in the way that the policy itself is connected.
CB: That’s correct.
JJ: While the linking with agricultural policy has allowed SNAP to survive multiple efforts to gut it, all of that politicking, and you indicated in the book, it has interfered—it has led to things like work requirements, for instance, situations where, as you put it, the programmatically suboptimal is the politically necessary.
And you ask what I think is often an overlooked question, which is, “Compared to what?” Because, for sure, this book is not saying that SNAP is perfect, and it’s not saying, even more deeply, that SNAP would necessarily have a place in a truly healthy, just society, but it’s, “What else are we going to do?”
CB: I guess my “what else” is the political reality part of me. Given our strong anti-welfare ethos in this country, at least at the abstract level, most of our social welfare system is in-kind support, not cash.
JJ: I’m going to ask you, finally, about media. We were talking about work requirements; the Wall Street Journal complained this past May that veterans and the homeless were being exempted from work requirements for food vouchers, because, they said, “These Americans could perhaps most benefit from the dignity and stability of work.” OK.
News media have often played a fairly inglorious role, punching down with the sensational shaming stories about people buying lobster with EBT, and then also just, if I could say, laziness.
In 1996, it seemed to us that a lot of reporters didn’t necessarily read the Personal Responsibility Act, because the preamble begins, “Marriage is the foundation of a successful society.” So it could have been obvious that this was going to be about behavior modification.
But then again, it was journalists, and writers like Michael Harrington, who have brought hunger to the foreground as a US issue, at a time when it wasn’t seen that way. Any thoughts, in general, about the role of the press, in the past or going forward on this set of issues?
CB: I think it’s been far too easy for some in the press to just repeat the lazy narratives about poor people being poor because it’s their own fault. Poverty in America has some strong structural roots that, in fact, some people profit from, and I think we don’t really look closely at the complicated lives of poor people. That would be my one thing I would like to see.
Now, obviously, there’s a fair number of people—Wall Street Journal being one of them—where their view of poor people is this undifferentiated mass of not very morally strong people who basically should be out there working more. Yeah, most SNAP families have somebody who’s working; they just don’t make enough money.
So I think there’s a real consideration in what we might call the mainstream media to look more closely at these dynamics, and not take these facile arguments about poor people not wanting to work at face value.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Christopher Bosso from Northeastern University. Why SNAP Works is out now from the University of California Press. Thanks, Christopher Bosso, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
CB: Well, thank you for having me.
The post ‘Poverty in America Has Strong Structural Roots That Some People Profit From’ appeared first on FAIR.
This content originally appeared on FAIR and was authored by Janine Jackson.
Janine Jackson | Radio Free (2023-10-25T21:28:24+00:00) ‘Poverty in America Has Strong Structural Roots That Some People Profit From’ – CounterSpin interview with Christopher Bosso on food assistance. Retrieved from https://www.radiofree.org/2023/10/25/poverty-in-america-has-strong-structural-roots-that-some-people-profit-from-counterspin-interview-with-christopher-bosso-on-food-assistance/
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