Senator Harkin’s Definition of Success

At a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing earlier this week, Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), gave somewhat parenthetical comments (the main focus of the hearing was energy, rural development and crop insurance) on federal nutrition programs. Parenthetical they may have been, but I think they signify something important.

Harkin’s remarks on nutrition programs (or “food stamps” as they are more commonly, if less accurately, called) begin at about 52:30 and end at about 53:35 or so of this video. The part that most struck me was when the senator was describing a meeting he had with some Iowa consitutents. He had this to say [an official transcript is not yet available, but my trusty intern Ian Yamamoto listened to Harkin’s remarks and transcribed them for me]:

I just had my weekly breakfast this morning with Iowans. Had a big group there from the diocese of Davenport, a Catholic dioceses, and that’s what they wanted to talk about: was not backing off of our support for low-income people who are facing tough times now, with high rates of unemployment, that need the supplemental nutrition  assistance program, or as it’s called, food stamps. And I thought one of the statements made there was kind of profound they said ya know, someone’s accusing this president of being a food stamp president. One of them said well he ought to wear that as a badge of honor

OK, hold it right there. Really? The fact that millions of this nation’s people depend on the federal government to feed themselves is a badge of honor? Can we all agree, please, that regardless of how you feel about the federal government’s role and responsibility in providing a safety net—of food stamps or anything else—that this is not a situation to be proud of? According to Lisa Levenstein and Jennifer Mittelstadt, writing in the New York Times earlier this month, the food stamp program feeds 46 million Americans, about 15 percent of the U.S. population. But they point out that if everyone who was entitled to the program actually used it, we would see 20-25 percent of Americans on food stamps. They also, by the way, see the high numbers using food stamps as a good thing: “Conservatives are trying to smear Barack Obama by dubbing him the ‘food stamp president.’ He should not run from the label but embrace it…”

I don’t mean to pick on food stamps here—it’s not the policy hill on which I would choose to die. But I really do object when politicians or welfare advocates start celebrating dependency. We should all be talking about ways to cut the number of people needing food stamps in the first place.

Senator Harkin has form on this issue, by the way.