The reality of so many Americans running out of food is an alarming reminder of the economic hardship the pandemic has inflicted. But despite their support for spending trillions on other programs to mitigate those hardships, Republicans have balked at a long-term expansion of food stamps — a core feature of the safety net that once enjoyed broad support but is now a source of a highly partisan divide.
Democrats want to raise food stamp benefits by 15 percent for the duration of the economic crisis, arguing that a similar move during the Great Recession reduced hunger and helped the economy. But Republicans have fought for years to shrink the program, saying that the earlier liberalization led to enduring caseload growth and a backdoor expansion of the welfare state.
For President Trump, a personal rivalry may also be in play: In his State of the Union address in February, he boasted that falling caseloads showed him besting his predecessor, Barack Obama, whom Newt Gingrich, the former Republican House speaker, had derided as “the food stamp president.” Even as the pandemic unfolded, the Trump administration tried to push forward with new work rules projected to remove more people from aid.
Mr. Trump and his congressional allies have agreed to only a short-term increase in food stamp benefits that omits the poorest recipients, including five million children. Those calling for a broader increase say Congress has spent an unprecedented amount on programs invented on the fly while rejecting a proven way to keep hungry people fed.
“This program is the single most powerful anti-hunger tool that we have and one of the most important economic development tools,” said Kate Maehr, the head of the Chicago food bank. “Not to use it when we have so many people who are in such great need is heartbreaking. This is not a war that charity can win.”
The debate in Congress is about the size of benefits, not the numbers on the rolls. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, as food stamps are also known, expands automatically to accommodate need.
“SNAP is working, SNAP will increase,” said Representative K. Michael Conaway of Texas, the top Republican on the House Agriculture Committee, which oversees the program. “Anyone who qualifies is going to get those benefits. We do not need new legislation.”
Mr. Conaway noted that Republicans have supported huge spending on other programs to temper the economic distress, and increased benefits for some SNAP recipients (for the duration of the health emergency, not the economic downturn). Democrats, he said, want to leverage the pandemic into a permanent food stamp expansion.
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