Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Why it is difficult to develop good SNAP policy

When legislators want to make cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), they don't write in a change to an appropriated dollar amount.  Instead, because the program is a "mandatory" or entitlement program, they change the eligibility and benefit rules in some particular way, and then the Congressional Budget Office "scores" the change to provide an estimate of the budgetary change that is generated.

When House Republicans proposed this summer to cut SNAP, the particular legislative vehicle was a proposal by Rep. Steve Southerland (R-FL) to increase work requirements.  Democrats opposed the change, not so much because of an objection to work requirements, but rather because the proposal was first and foremost the vehicle for SNAP cuts.  In the past, proposals for work requirements that weren't about cutting program rolls have sometimes had broad support and sometimes not.

In the Washington Post today, Eli Saslow has an excellent feature about Southerland and his interest in work requirements.  The article has two especially captivating passages.  The first passage is a conversation between Southerland and low-income participants in a job readiness program.  I sometimes read a promising reform proposal from a constituency that is not traditionally a core program supporter (whether budget-cutting conservatives, or whether nutrition-promoting public health advocates) and think to myself, "This promising proposal certainly could be strengthened if the sponsors would first vet it with program participants themselves, then make some modifications so that the proposal really could be even more relevant to people's needs, rather than just what an outsider thinks they need."

The second captivating passage is about how Southerland, though he has the courage to speak to program participants, lacks the ability to speak to program supporters in Congress:
He explained that he had spent the past few days studying 20 years of food stamp policy, trying to differentiate himself from his colleagues by becoming an expert. “Nobody here really knows anything,” he said. He thought about that for a second and then reconsidered. “There’s one other guy,” he said. “A Democrat.” He told her about a Massachusetts liberal named Jim McGovern, who had been giving a speech about hunger on the House floor each week. McGovern had rallied the Democrats against Southerland’s proposal. Out of 435 people in the House, he was the only one who had studied food stamps just as hard and who seemed to care just as much.

“What does he say about all of this to you?” his daughter asked. “I don’t know,” Southerland said. “I haven’t talked to him.”

“What?” she said. “Seriously? Never? That doesn’t make sense.” She knew her dad as a conciliator who valued mentoring young men at church, yearly hunting trips with his three siblings and funeral director retreats to the mountains. “Your whole thing is connecting with people,” she said.

“Everybody likes you.” And yet here was another Washington lawmaker, elected to solve the same problems, who had become an expert on the same issue, who worked in the same place, and her dad had never met with him?

“Can’t you ask him to coffee?” she asked. “You could work together.”

“That wouldn’t play so well with the conservative base,” Hayes said.

“Or back in district,” McCullough said.

“Honey, look,” Southerland said, staring at her intently, pleading with her to understand. “Washington is a runaway freight train. There isn’t time here for anything.” He reached for two empty milkshake glasses to help him illustrate the problem, setting the glasses side by side on the table, their rims touching. “This is me, and this is the other guy when we get to Washington,” he said. “Different ideas, different people, but we are close. We are touching. Democrat and Republican. We can do something with this.”

He started to slowly pull the glasses in separate directions, ticking off reasons for the escalating divide. “Fundraising. Campaigns,” he said, moving the glasses farther apart. “Votes, strategy, rushing around, lobbyists, name-calling,” he continued, spreading the glasses farther, moving his daughter’s plate to clear a path for one of them. “I have my meetings and they have theirs. I run by them. They run by me. It’s all about winning, winning, winning. Winning – not fixing problems – defines all.”

Now Southerland stretched his arms as far as he could, placing each glass at a distant edge of the table. Each was just an inch from falling and shattering on the ground. This was the congressional divide over food stamps and so much else. This was Washington in 2013 – one place, Southerland was beginning to realize, where legislation depended on so much more than hard work.

“So now I’m here and they’re way over there,” he said, pointing to the glasses. “We can barely see each other. We can’t solve anything like this.”
This totally matches my own impressions about what is going wrong in Congressional politics in the United States on all the important food policy issues of the day.

I want to shout, "Take a risk, Mr. Southerland!"  You are thinking clearly about important issues.  You are getting out in the field to speak to real people.  Why, then, restrict your policy conversations to government-hating anti-poor conservatives in the majority caucus of the House of Representatives? Perhaps you have a calling in educating and persuading instinctive liberals about a genuinely helpful vision of a social safety net that gives an honored central place to hard work.

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