Last week, cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program came into effect, marking the expiration of a recession-era boost to the food stamps program. These cuts will reduce benefits by 5 percent over the next year. While this may not seem like much, the 47.7 million Americans who rely on this federal aid to put food on the table will struggle to make ends meet as they face losses of anywhere between $40-$70 per month (“SNAP Benefits Will Be Cut for All Participants in November 2013,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 8.2.2013). Families will be forced to make choices some of us have never been confronted with, such as whether to forgo a carton of milk to buy eggs, or to sacrifice the snacks in kids’ lunch boxes for fresh vegetables at dinner.
It seems as though Americans are having to make more and more trade-offs these days, as Congress continues to trade our well-being for petty political gains. With public spending is at its lowest point since the 1950’s, the slashing of federal non-defense discretionary spending represents a dramatic expansion of the war against the poor into an all-out assault on the 99 percent. This is not just the money that pays for welfare programs—these are the funds allocated toward education, child care, national parks and basic infrastructure such as roads and bridges, and they are being reigned in at an unprecedented pace.
Many would argue that such dramatic austerity measures are not unique to the United States, and it is obviously true that Europe has had to tighten its belt in the wake of the global recession as well. But the difference between U.S. fiscal austerity and European fiscal austerity is that the Europeans had much more to cut to begin with. It is one thing to reduce public spending when you already have expansive social welfare programs such as universal health care and free education as the Europeans do. It is quite another, however, to make cuts in public investment when a legitimate American dilemma is whether to spend money on medical care for a life-threatening illness or pay for your child’s college tuition.
The United States’ obsession with fiscal responsibility is unrivaled in its masochism; only Greece, Ireland and Portugal have cut government spending more sharply than the United States, and only because these austerity measures were forced upon them by the European Union and creditors in Berlin. Members of Congress, however, have chosen to depress the economy entirely of their own accord, remaining wholly one-tracked in their determination to eliminate the national debt no matter how unnecessary and unrealistic an endeavor this may be. “None of us can be proud of the way we spend the money,” Oklahoma Republican Senator Tom Coburn said the other day from the Senate floor during a speech (“Cutting the Deficit by Cutting Programs is Risky,” The New York Times, 10.31.13).
In a way, Senator Coburn is right. None of us can be proud of a government that throws away money on a hapless drone program while it claims to be too broke to spend on job creation. None of us can be proud of the 25 state legislatures that would rather horde their money and withhold health benefits from seven million Americans (many of whom will die from treatable illnesses simply for being too poor to receive care) than accept federal funds to expand Medicaid. None of us can be proud of a government that allocates 20 percent of its budget to defense and 2 percent to education, even though, as Nicholas Kristof points out, “The single thing that the US could do that would make the most difference in addressing poverty and reducing inequality of opportunity is broadening early education.” (“Oklahama! Where the Kids Learn Early,” The New York Times, 11.9.13). And all of us should be downright ashamed of the Congressmen who lose more sleep over the possibility of increasing the national debt than they do over the 13 million children who will go to sleep hungry because of their “fiscally responsible” cuts to the food stamp program.
From the time we are born, Americans are inculcated with a profound reverence for the puritanical work ethic and rejection of entitlement this country was founded upon. We are told that to be a citizen of this great country, with all of its freedoms and opportunities, is privilege enough—the United States has done its part by endowing us with the status of free and equal human beings, and if we work hard enough, we have no excuse not to thrive. To ask for help is to admit defeat, and to ask for benefits is to admit a flawed character. President Kennedy’s voice rings in our ears as we begin to feel ourselves getting too greedy by expecting our government to do more for us: “Ask not what your country can do for you…”
But there is only so much you can do for your country when you are hungry, sick and unemployed. There is only so much faith you can have in a Congress that appears determined to have you stay that way.
—Natasha Bertrand ’14 political science & philosophy double major.